Today is technically the first day of Spring, but it’s still a little chilly outside, so it’s probably best to post this story before it gets any warmer out there. After all, this tale is set all the way up north not too far from the Klondike, featuring a team of sled dogs who go on a late-night adventure through the snowy, frozen Alaskan countryside. This is an anthropomorphic story, which means that, just like in Bambi, or Balto, the dogs (among other animals) in this story think and talk just as humans would.
I’ve always had a soft-spot for the anthropomorphic genre, probably because of my fondness and great interest in animals. This story, along with its companion, and one of my earliest-published short stories, “Far From the Cold”, are two of my favorites that I’ve written. I originally came up with a host of different short story ideas for this same group of sled dogs and their owner, along with a concept or two for full-length novels. I’ve promised myself that, at some point in my life, I’m going to return to these ideas and write up all the adventures that I’ve dreamed up for these hounds.
This one comes in at just a little over 10,000 words. If the warm air still hasn’t found your neck of the woods, bundle up and enjoy the dogs’ trek into the wild Klondike.
The Cross in the Snow
Bart hardly felt the whiskey’s burn as it slid down his throat. Not even the kind which was brewed in the cold reaches of Alaska—often boasted to be stronger than the Native American recipes of the West—could give him the jolt that he desperately longed for.
He was the lone person seated at the counter. The dimly-lit tavern was empty save for himself and the bartender, who had not seen a customer from outside of town in days after a brutal storm washed over the countryside. Bart was lucky to have evaded the blizzard with the help of his beloved sled dogs, although the young man had still lost something very precious during his trek.
“I’m going to need another, Will,” said Bart, planting his glass on the wooden counter.
“You planning to drink yourself asleep there, Bart?” the bartender replied while he finished wiping down a large mug.
“No, I just want another,” Bart snapped.
Although he did not let him see it, Will rolled his eyes as he grabbed the bottle of whiskey. “Hey, just asking, was all,” he said, and poured to the brim of Bart’s glass, “As long as you pay, I don’t really care what you do with yourself.”
Bart could not even bring himself to look up at the bartender as he swirled the bronze drink in his hand. “Sorry ‘bout that; Will, I’m just frustrated,” the young man said, and took a gulp.
Will nodded understandingly, and started to wipe off another set of glasses. “It’s alright, kid, I’ve been in your place before,” he said.
Bart groaned aloud. “I just don’t understand how I could have missed it. I always check all of my cargo to make sure it’s in place and tied down before we start running. And even if it were loose, I can’t believe I didn’t notice it fall off during the trip.”
“Well, I imagine that it’s hard to catch something like that when you’re staring straight ahead, watching for any dangerous terrain the whole time,” Will said, “And in your case, you were trying to outrun a storm, of all things.”
“It doesn’t change the fact that I should have been far more careful with it,” Bart lamented. “I was hoping to ship it to my mom down in San Francisco once I reached a town along the coast. She’s as faithful as any woman I know; she would’ve loved it. And I know that she would keep it in perfect shape for me while I stayed up in these parts.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, where exactly did you get that cross?”
“From the group of Inuit I met last year that probably saved my life,” Bart answered. “I had been running along the coast making a delivery, and one night a Kodiak bear wandered into my camp. I didn’t even know the thing was there while I was sleeping, and before I woke up some of the Inuit hunters scared him off.”
Will wore a bewildered expression. “So…you’re telling me that a bunch of Inuit made you a cross? Like, the kind you put on your wall and pray to?”
“Yeah, the chief’s daughter carved it out of seashells for me,” Bart went on. “After I made my delivery, I went back to find their tribe, and I spent nearly a month living with them. They showed me all these different ways to hunt, fish, and forage out in the wilderness, even what’s buried beneath snow.”
“And the chief’s daughter made you a cross…” Will repeated, still obviously amazed that a Native tribe would build an article of the Christian faith.
Bart briefly shot him an irritated look. “We learned a lot of from each other. I don’t see what’s so strange about a white man and an Inuit tribe coexisting.”
“Well, it doesn’t exactly happen like that very often; that’s why it’s so strange,” Will appealed. Bart ignored the explanation and took another slug of his whiskey, although Will pressed the discussion. “You can’t just retrace your route and see if you can find it, can you?”
“For all I know that thing’s either been picked up by some animal or covered by a foot of snow,” Bart growled. “And even if it’s just sitting out in the open somewhere, I won’t have the chance to go back for at least two days. I have to make a delivery of spruce needles to the next town by tomorrow afternoon.”
“The spruce needles can’t wait?”
“Not if it keeps me from making the kind of money I’ve been promised. Besides that, I can’t say that I would have a very clean conscious if I rolled into town late when a dozen or more sailors are dying of scurvy. Spruce needles are the only medicine that can treat those poor guys.”
Bart’s tone was tart the whole time he spoke, but Will could see just how crestfallen the young man was when he hung his head afterward and went silent. The bartender decided to go quiet on the topic, as well, not wanting to make the young man feel any more upset about the lost cross.
Will turned away from Bart to grab another dusty bottle. Through one of the windows, he caught a glance of Bart’s sled dogs kept within the pen just next to the tavern. There were five of them in all; a large Alaskan Malamute, an older Siberian Husky, a golden-haired Chinook, a young Canadian Eskimo Dog, and a beautiful Greenland Dog. Bart purchased the dogs some time ago just before he set out on a perilous journey across the Alaskan countryside, and ever since, they had grown to be his most trusted companions.
“Any chance that you could send them to sniff it out?” Will asked with a chuckle, perhaps to cheer up Bart, if for only a moment.
“The dogs?” Bart said while he looked out the window at them, “Well, if they could, even I’d be amazed by it.”
* * * * *
The Eskimo Dog, a pup no older than two years, stood on the fencing of the pen as he stared at Bart through the gaps in the wiring. His tail, which normally waved to and fro ceaselessly, was held beneath his hindquarters, and his ears hung low to his head.
“Bart still seems really upset about that thing he lost…” said the Eskimo Dog, who’s name was Tauskey, and looked back at the other dogs in the corral. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this miserable.”
“I know that I haven’t,” added Meesha, the tan Greenland Dog. “I’ve never even heard a lot of the words that he was saying earlier when he first got mad.”
“Humans say those kind of words all the time, Meesha,” explained Pharos, the old Siberian Husky, “But Bart only uses them when he’s very angry about something.”
Tauskey jumped off the fencing and trotted over to join his companions, who all lay on the dry, warm floor of the pen which had been swept of any snow when Bart set them inside. “What did Bart call that thing, again?” the young Eskimo Dog asked.
The Alaskan Malamute, named Lasher, answered Tauskey while his deep brown eyes gazed out into the snowy countryside. “It’s called a ‘cross’, it’s a symbol to the humans like Bart and very important to them,” Lasher said. “It represents what he believes in, or something like that.”
“I still don’t understand all of that,” Meesha chimed in, “Like how he sits up at night sometimes talking to himself, or when he would hold that cross and talk to it.”
“It’s what the humans call ‘prayer’,” Pharos further elaborated, “They have their own method of communicating with the forces that they believe in and live by.”
The golden-haired Chinook, named Sheba, interjected herself in the conversation for the first time while she lay flat on her side with her eyes closed. “Just like we’ve got our own forces to communicate with; the wild itself,” Sheba said. “And just like the humans can’t understand our instincts, we can’t understand all of their beliefs, so it’s best never to try.”
Lasher hardly heard any of what Sheba or the others dogs said. He stared into the dusky horizon, and his mind recounted their travels from that day. “You know, I think I have an idea of where it could’ve fallen off the sled,” the Malamute spoke up. “There was that forest that we passed through just before the river, where the ground was really rocky. If it got loose anywhere, it was probably in there.”
Meesha recognized a hint of conviction in Lasher’s tone, which she had heard many times before. Of the five dogs, Lasher was the most daring, and if any of them was to scheme up a plan, it was the Malamute who always did so. “Let me guess, Lash, you want to go and get it, don’t you?” Meesha asked with a long sigh.
Lasher glanced at her out of the tail of his eye, and smirked. “Why not?” he declared confidently. “That forest was only a couple of hours behind us, and without having to pull the sled and Bart, we could all run there in no time. Wherever the cross fell off, it has to be along the way we traveled somewhere.”
Meesha rolled her eyes at Lasher’s bravado. “In case you forgot, we’re supposed to run all the way to the next town starting first thing in the morning,” the Greenland Dog said. “I don’t think that staying up all night hunting for one of Bart’s items will make that trip any easier on us.”
Lasher snickered, and turned his eyes away from the countryside to show Meesha a devious grin. “That just sounds to me like there’s a pretty pup who’s too afraid to spend time out in the wild without a human by her side,” Lasher teased.
Meesha wore a smile of her own as she merely shrugged off Lasher’s quip. The gorgeous Greenland Dog stood up off of the ground and struck an imposing stance. “Trust me, I’m not afraid of anything out there, I just worry that a wolf or something may come around, and I’ll have to chase it away for you,” Meesha shot back.
Lasher failed to withhold a laugh, and Sheba groaned while she stretched her long, thick legs. “Well, if you two ever actually decide that you’re going to go, make sure you tell me before I fall asleep here,” she said.
Tauskey’s ears finally perked up, and his tail gradually began to wave back and forth. “I’m not tired at all; I say we should do it,” the young dog said excitedly.
Pharos turned his wolfish head and looked out at the mauve sky which lay in the distance.
“The storm seems to have passed over the countryside by now, so we should at least have a clear night,” the old Siberian Husky observed. “But that also means that our tracks are likely covered by now, and there will be much more snow to move through along the way.”
“Snow’s never been a problem for us,” Lasher replied. “And as far as our tracks go, we don’t necessarily need to see them—that’s what we’ve got our noses for.”
Pharos could not completely hide his amusement at Lasher’s remark as his lips curled into a vague smile. “True as that may be, we also have to remember that we will need to be back here by dawn,” Pharos advised. “And we can only travel so far; at a certain point, we will have to turn back, as we’ll need as much time to run back here as we did running after the cross.”
“I’m pretty sure the adventurer over here already knows all of that,” Meesha commented, referring to Lasher comically.
The Malamute smirked—as if proudly—at Meesha’s harmless jab.
“But wait a sec, how are we supposed to get out of the pen?” Tauskey asked as his eyes washed over the wired fencing, only then remembering that they were confined.
For the first time since they had been placed in the pen, Sheba stood up from the ground. The Chinook made her way to the fence, and pawed at the short wall of snow beneath it. “We can just dig our way out,” she explained. “This fence must have been put up when the snowfall was much greater, because this thing is barely even entrenched in the ground. Bart’s lucky that we like him so much, otherwise we could sneak out of this whenever we wanted and never come back.”
Lasher then lay down on the ground casually, his satisfied grin as wide as ever. “So, all we have to do is wait for Bart to go to sleep, and we can slip out of here,” he said.
Meesha shifted her gaze at the tavern window, and through it she could make out Bart draining another glass of whiskey. “I don’t think we’re going to be waiting for very long…” she muttered.
* * * * *
When the feint lights which glowed inside of the tavern at last went out, Bart stumbled through the front door. He ambled across the road to the inn where he was staying that night, and as soon as he entered, the dogs sent their paws to work against the light snow which collected at the base of the corral’s fence. After little toil, the five hounds were beyond the enclosure’s walls and racing through the town.
The streets were completely empty that night; not even a stray wandered through the alleys. The dogs reached the outskirts swiftly, and stopped at the very edge of the human settlement. Before them lay the sprawling Alaskan wild, which had become a vast blanket of glittering white after one of the north’s powerful winter storms had traveled overhead.
“Well, those are definitely our tracks,” said Sheba as she looked down at the ground. Although they had been coated by a light dusting of snow, the dogs’ paw prints were more than visible, even in the dark of night. To each side of their tracks ran a thin groove in the snow, made from the rails on Bart’s toboggan as they cleaved through the frost during their earlier travels.
“It looks like they haven’t been covered up very much, yet,” Meesha said as she peered out into the distance, where their tracks ran for an incalculable length into the cold wilderness. “We might just be able to follow them all the way to wherever Bart’s cross is.”
“We may have avoided most of the blizzard, but you can be sure that, at the very least, the remnants of it washed over our path at some point,” advised Pharos, “We’ll have to be very keen when following them. If we shift our course even slightly, we could head down the wrong trail and get lost very quickly.”
While the other dogs conversed amongst one another, Lasher had his jet black nose pressed against the snow. After sniffing at their tracks, he lifted his bulky head off the ground and sniffed at the open air ahead of him. “I don’t think we’ll even have to worry about that, we can just follow our scent the whole time,” the Malamute said enthusiastically, and took off in a full sprint.
“Would you wait up for us for once!?” Meesha barked as she and the other dogs followed Lasher into the frozen realm.
The five of them moved swiftly through the hilly countryside, which wore a very smooth and steady surface beneath their feet. Above its once grassy floor was a carpet of snow, piled on after several weeks of the prodigious Alaskan winter. For a human, as well as many of the animals who called the north their home, traversing through the thick layers of snow was a tedious, exhausting task that would make for a wearying journey. And if deep enough, the snow could swallow someone whole and trap them in its cold, icy grip.
But the dogs, who were already accustomed to dragging heavy toboggans across the Klondike, had no trouble darting through the open countryside that night. They moved lithely amid the snow, as their graceful paws always kept them from sinking too far into the chilly trenches.
It was a stunning night in the north as the dogs chased after Bart’s lost cross. After the charcoal storm clouds rolled off into another part of the land, the sky took on a gleaming purple shade that looked as if it were made of pure amethyst.
Within the shimmering ceiling above Alaska was a host of stars. Most of them hung in the heavens while they shone, but there were also those which raced across the sky, their white tails of fire burning brightly behind them as they soared through the galaxy beyond.
From the same sky fell a gentle rain of light snow, hardly even enough to add another coating to the frozen ground beneath it. There was no breeze that night, and without a chilling gust howling wherever it flew, there was a serene silence in the open air of the wild.
The dogs may have journeyed with a task on their minds, but they greatly enjoyed their trek as they ran freely with one another. Although Bart loved them dearly and cared for them exceptionally, it was rare that they were ever allowed to travel for so long and so far without hauling a sled behind them. They appeared almost like a wolf pack that night as they dashed through the snowy countryside, barking and yelping at each other the whole way. All the while, they each basked in the freedom that their distant instincts always desired so strongly, and linked them to the spirit of their wild ancestors.
Within time, the rolling hills leveled, and an expansive boreal forest took over the landscape. The dogs once again delved into the sprawling maze of aspen trees, and just as before, they soon found that navigating amongst the trees was much more difficult than doing so in the wide-open countryside, even without the burden of the sled and its traces.
Each aspen was a natural spire which stretched high into the air, and sprouted wing-like branches which unfolded to cover most of the sky from those who stood below. Amongst the trees’ trunks was an even heavier, deeper layer of snow than that on the tundra. All of the snow that once lay on their green branches was flung to the forest floor by the blizzard’s sharp gales from earlier that day. The dogs’ tracks had become buried by a carpet of frost, and they journeyed onward only by means of their feint scent which dimly lingered in the woods.
But even that eventually dissipated as they ventured further inward. The woods was home to a multitude of other beasts—hares, lynx, wolves, caribou, owls, martens, foxes—whose scents crowded the air. To precisely follow the smell from a small group of dogs and one human was impossible, particularly Bart’s. Like any human’s, his scent had fallen to the ground since he passed through, and was now hidden by a deep blanket of snow.
It was only when they entered a spacious clearing in the very heart of the forest that they realized just how far off they were from their original trail.
“Alright, so I don’t think I remember this area from before…” Lasher admitted as his brown eyes scanned the open space.
“That’s because we never passed through here,” Sheba said, a hint of frustration leaking through her teeth.
“We’re not lost…are we?” Tauskey whined as he looked about frantically.
“It seems like it, and that’s not much of a surprise seeing as who led us this whole time,” Meesha criticized, obviously speaking about Lasher.
“We’re not lost,” the Malamute protested. “We just wandered off of the path a bit, that’s all. We can get back to it in no time if we snoop around some more.”
“That sounds a lot like being lost to me…” Meesha grumbled under her breath, just loud enough for Lasher to hear.
Tauskey turned back toward the rest of the woods where they came from. “Should we just retrace our steps through the forest, then?” the young dog asked.
“It’s not as simple as that, since we likely lost our way some time ago,” Pharos explained. “We have no idea exactly where we went off-course, and there’s no way to ever know if we lost our scent and the tracks so long ago.”
“We’ve gotten pretty far into the woods here, we must be close to that river we passed over before,” Lasher spoke up, still examining their surroundings. “If we can find our way to that, we’ll be on the right path again and we’ll probably be close to wherever Bart’s cross is.”
As the Malamute’s eyes washed over the clearing, a clump of white strangely leapt off the surface of the snow. For a moment Lasher believed it to be only an illusion of his fatigue, but then he saw the same speck leap once again. When he focused, it took on a much more distinct shape to his eyes; a coat of glistening white fur, a plump body with four slender legs, and two long ears which rose above its head.
“That looks like a hare, doesn’t it?” Tauskey chimed in as he and other dogs took notice of the tiny creature ahead of them.
“I think so,” Lasher said. “Maybe it can tell us how to get to the river from here. Let’s go ask it.”
“We have to be careful not to frighten it,” Pharos cautioned as the five dogs started toward the hare. “I’m sure that we’ll look like a pack of wolves when it sees us, and there’s nothing that would scare a little thing more than that at this hour of the night.”
After only a few steps, the hare appeared to catch sight of the approaching hounds. Its stalk-like ears shot straight up, and the rest of its body stiffened as its eyes grew wide.
“Hey! Over here!” Sheba called out to get its attention, although she had no idea that the hare was already aware of their presence, and that her cry was hardly inviting to a prey-animal in the wild.
The hare let out a terrified shriek, and with one great leap sped away. For a fleeting instant the dogs were all stunned by the hare’s sudden retreat.
“After it, we can’t let it get away!” Lasher cried as he and the other dogs took off in mad pursuit. They charged straight ahead, their legs a blur as they raced toward the hare. Even after running across the Alaskan countryside for nearly two hours just earlier, and traversing a much greater stretch of land throughout the day, the dogs moved faster than ever before that night, determined not to let the petite animal flee beyond their sight.
The hare was a graceful creature, nearly skipping on the surface of the snow with each hop, while the dogs plowed through the chilly troughs by chest and paw. They began to gain ground on the hare, for although it moved like quicksilver, the hare’s tiny build could not cover the same distance that the dogs did with each of their lengthy strides.
But then the hare did something that the dogs had not anticipated. Without any warning, the nimble creature turned and bounded just as speedily in a different direction. After only a few hops, it did so again. And again, and again, until the dogs ran about in disarray as they struggled to stay directly behind the lissome hare.
Soon the dogs found themselves in another quandary. The hare’s cotton-white frame often became lost amongst the snow. Without moving in a straight line, and instead bouncing to and fro all about the clearing, the hare’s natural camouflage made it increasingly difficult to follow, even for the deft eyes of the sled dogs.
“Wait, where’d it go!?” Tauskey shouted as he stopped on a dime when he saw no movement amongst the snow in front of him.
“It’s over here, I’m right behind him!” Meesha answered.
“No it’s not, now I’m behind it!” Sheba announced. Two of the dogs crashed into each other several times as they struggled to keep up with the agile hare, who showed no sign of slowing down and seemed to dart off in any direction it pleased.
Pharos’s aged eyes had the greatest difficulty in following the creature, but of the five dogs, it was the elder husky who best knew how to overtake a quarry.
“All of you, start driving it toward one of the forest’s edges,” Pharos commanded. “We’re never going to be able to catch it here in the snow, but we can follow it better if it’s near the trees.”
“If it gets back into the forest, we’ll never be able to follow him!” Lasher argued, not aware of the clever ploy that Pharos envisioned.
“Just listen to me and do as I say, Lash!” Pharos barked, evidently in no mood to argue.
With no better ideas of their own, the other dogs did not ponder it any further. As they continued to chase after the hare, they spread out, forming a wall behind the fleeing animal. They no longer attempted to lunge at it directly, but instead boxed the hare off from any angle beside what lay straight ahead for it.
Like sheepdogs herding the flock, the five sled dogs gradually coerced the hare toward the edge of the forest. Each time the hare sprang forward, its white fur stood out glaringly against the backdrop of the sepia tree trunks, the evergreen bramble, and the blackness of the woods—the dogs finally understood what Pharos had intended.
With the hare clearly in their sights, the dogs were able to close the distance at last. When the hare was just about to leap into the safety of the aspens, Meesha came soaring from the side and snatched it her mouth before she even landed.
“You killed it!” Tauskey exclaimed in dismay as the hare shrieked.
Meesha let the hare drop to the ground, and gently placed a paw on the squirming animal. “It’s not dead; I hardly even bit down,” she said. “I just grabbed it like how a mother carries a pup in her mouth.”
The hare stopped struggling beneath her paw, and its long ears fell across its face as its body trembled. “Oh, please, just make it quick,” he sobbed. “I won’t offer much of a meal for all of you, so I beg you, don’t devour me slowly like your kind always seems to do!”
Lasher found it difficult not to laugh at the hare’s dramatics, but did not want to mock the little creature by displaying his amusement in front of him. “Relax, fella, we’re not going to kill you,” Lasher said. “We actually need your help finding something.”
The hare stopped shaking immediately. He lifted his ears back up once again, and showed the dogs a surprised, although thoroughly-relieved expression. “Oh…I see…” was all he was able to utter for a moment, and then his face distorted in horror once more. “Oh! But I won’t show you to my family, neither! I’ll never tell you where they or any of the other hares have their nests. You could eat me piece by piece and I’d never speak!”
“We don’t want to eat your family, either,” Pharos said with a sigh. “We’re looking for an item that belonged to a human.”
The hare repeated the same mood shift as before. “Oh…well, that’s nothing for me to be so scared about, I guess,” he said, a little bit of pep coming back into his voice. “But then why did you have to chase after me like you did?”
“Because you ran away from us,” Meesha plainly answered, and lifted her paw off of him. The hare shot an indignant glare up toward her as soon as he was free.
“Well, what do you expect me to do when I see five wild dogs barking and running straight at me!?” the hare retorted.
“We’re not wild, we’re sled dogs,” Sheba corrected. “We spent the whole day running across the countryside with our owner, and something important of his fell off of his sled along the way. We got out of our pen when he went to sleep so we could retrace our trail to find it.”
The hare developed a thoughtful look in his eyes, as if he tried to gain a recollection of something. “You know, earlier tonight while I was foraging for food, I think I might have seen what you’re looking for,” he began. “There was a brown pouch, like what humans always carry, laying in the snow not very far beyond the river. It had a strange smell, though. It smelled like it had been in the water, but not the water in these parts. It smelled like it came from the ocean, actually.”
A humored smile crept across each of the dogs’ faces. Lasher himself had a proud glint in his eyes to go along with his hefty grin. “There can’t be anything else in these woods besides a cross made of seashells that could smell like the ocean,” he said to his companions.
“And it sounds like it’s near the river, just as you thought it’d be, Lash!” Tauskey added enthusiastically.
Lasher aimed a satisfied expression in Meesha’s direction. “So, we didn’t actually wander as far off the trail as you kept saying we did,” he teased her.
Meesha rolled her eyes, but still wore her own smile. “You may be right, but it still led us to chasing a hare around in a circle for who knows how long,” she replied.
“Do you know how to get to the river from here?” Pharos asked the hare.
The hare nodded rapidly. “Of course I do, my family’s nest is right by its banks,” he answered. “It’s not very far away from here, either, I can take you all there in no time.”
Sheba took a few steps back to make a clear path for the hare. “After you, then, little guy,” she told him with a motion of her snout.
The hare hopped away from all of the dogs, and started in the direction of the woods near the other side of the clearing.
“Just follow me!” he called out to all of them, and they quickly obeyed.
“Are we sure it’s a good idea to just let him run free again?” Tauskey asked while they ran close behind.
“I don’t see why not; if he tries to escape, we can just catch him again,” Lasher answered casually.
“If he tries to make us chase after him again, I’m turning in the other direction and heading back to town…” Meesha said.
They sped through the forest once more that night, but with the hare guiding them along, they did so without the uncertainty which had plagued them earlier in the journey. The hare still possessed the same speed as before when he evaded the dogs in the clearing for such a duration. As he glided atop the snow between the aspens and their bramble he struck up conversation with the dogs. He told them of his beloved mate and the four children he raised with her, all of whom he said would still be awake in their nest as they waited for his return that night.
The hare also told the dogs to be wary of other animals which prowled the woods in the late hours of the night, such as hungry wolf packs, and especially the crafty lynx. He sounded particularly fearful as he spoke of the wildcats, and how they regularly hunted his kind.
Their trek through the woods was not very long, and it was much easier travel due to how spacious the woods became along their path. Large clearings were commonplace along the way as the forest became less and less dense the further they ran. The aspen trees gradually drifted apart to open up the landscape, providing greater room to run for the hare and dogs, as well as a clear look up into the Klondike sky.
Just as the hare had told them, the river was not too far from where they first met. Once they came to a thin stretch of the forest which was nearly bare, they knew that they had arrived at where the frozen river lay. At one time in the year, the river would have been a roaring stampede of strong rapids whose waters often trailed off and doused the foliage that sprung up along its banks. But the chilling Alaskan winter turned into a still, icy tail which ran throughout the forest and into yonder countryside.
“Look, there’s our tracks from before!” Tauskey announced excitedly when he spotted their array of paw prints and the marks from the sled’s rails. The markings ran on one side of the river, and a pair of grooves could be seen in the ice from Bart’s sled before they appeared once again in the snow on the other side of the waterway, leading back into the forest.
“It actually might not be all that difficult to find our way back to town now,” Pharos mused. “At least we have an idea of which direction to head in through the woods.”
“So long as we can follow our tracks for a while, until we get to a point in the forest where we already know which way to go, we should be just fine,” Lasher added, glancing at Meesha out of the corner of his eye.
Meesha paid no attention to him, though, but sniffed the air as she trotted closer to the frozen water. “I think I can already smell Bart’s cross,” she said aloud. “There’s a scent like the ocean just ahead.”
“Yep, if I remember it correctly, the pouch that you lot are looking for is just a short ways into the woods beyond the opposite bank,” the hare told them. “It’s hardly even a sprint ahead; you all will find it in no time.”
“Then we should be on our way then, as we still have to get back to our owner before morning,” Pharos said, and started toward the river behind Meesha.
While Tauskey and Sheba followed, Lasher turned toward the hare and wagged his tail.
“Thanks for all of your help, pal, you really did us a great favor tonight,” the Malamute said warmly.
The hare humbly waved one of his paws.“You don’t even need to mention it, I’m always glad to help out another creature in need,” he replied, and then took a thoughtful pause. “Well, at least those that aren’t only interested in me because they think I’m tasty…”
Lasher had to suppress a chuckle. “Do you want me to come with you when you head back to your family?” Lasher asked, “Just to be safe?”
“Oh, no need at all,” the hare answered. “I’m only a few bounds down the river from here—I’ll be just fine.”
Lasher nodded with another smile, and turned toward his fellow sled dogs. “Then I wish you and your family the very best,” the Malamute said as he began to walk toward the river, and the hare was already hopping along the banks away from him.
“Always appreciate it!” the hare called out. “And best of luck to you all with getting that thing back to your owner!” With only a few leaps the hare was almost out of sight, and Tauskey had to his narrow his eyes just to catch even a glimpse of him.
“You know, we never even got to find out what his name was…” the young Eskimo Dog realized.
“Yeah, what a shame,” Sheba said sarcastically. “Let’s just find this cross and get back to town already.”
“Wait, Sheba,” Pharos sternly interrupted just as she was about to step foot on the frozen river.
The golden-haired Chinook raised an eyebrow at him. “What’s the problem this time?” Sheba asked, somewhat cheekily.
Pharos came to the very edge of the river, and delicately touched his paw down onto the ice a few times. “The ice isn’t terribly thick, not as much as we would’ve thought,” the old Husky explained, and looked up at the section where they and Bart had tread across earlier in the day. “It doesn’t help any that we pulled the sled on it just a few hours ago, we were lucky that we didn’t break through it at all.”
Sheba tapped her paw on the ice just as Pharos had, and wore an intrigued look on her face afterwards. “Imagine that, you were spot-on about it,” she commended.
“Is it still safe to walk across?” Tauskey asked, sounding a bit nervous.
“It should be; we just have to go about it the right way,” Pharos began. “We’ll have to spread out and walk across our own section, so we don’t add a lot of weight to just one spot. And we’ll have to—”
“We know how to cross ice, you old know-it-all,” Meesha growled as she walked away from the group to her own part of the river.
Pharos eyed Meesha sourly as he the others started to do the same.
“Wow, and I thought she only said mean things like that to me,” Lasher laughed under his breath to Pharos.
The five dogs separated from one another along the river bank. When they had created a considerable distance between each other, they gently set their paws onto the ice and began to make their way across the frozen surface. Having passed over frozen water an innumerable amount of times in their many journeys through the cold north, they were all well aware of the precautions that they needed to take in order to reach the other side safely.
Each dog flattened their body across the chilly floor as they crawled toward the opposite edge. By keeping their bellies low to the ice and their bodies spread as wide they would allow, they applied the least pressure that they could to the frozen surface beneath them.
It was a gradual process, often tedious due to the slippery ice which made it difficult for their paws to move swiftly. But within time they all came to the solid floor on the other side of the river, and had hardly even scraped the icy floor behind them.
They quickly came together to reform their group. The dogs sprinted into the forest, and their paws carried them swiftly over the slopes and downgrades of the rocky floor. With each pace through the thicket, the ocean’s scent grew more and more potent to their noses, until at long last they spotted the cross laying on the frosty ground.
“Hey, I think I see it!” Tauskey animatedly announced. Just beneath a meager incline was the brown pouch, coated lightly by a soft dusting of snow. They hurried over to it, and when they surrounded the leather sack, the scent of the ocean was so keen to the dogs that it smelled as if they stood only a paw’s length away from the arctic waves.
“That’s it, alright,” Lasher sighed in relief. The Malamute gently poked his nose into the pouch. With a tiny lift of his snout he opened the bag to reveal the stunning cross carved of lavender seashells sitting inside untouched.
“I must admit, I’m rather surprised that nothing tried to run off with it,” Pharos admitted as he lifted his head and scanned the surrounding forest. “It doesn’t even look as though another animal even came near here, there’s not a single track to be found in this spot.”
“I guess that if it’s not something that can be eaten, most animals out here in the wild aren’t interested in it,” Lasher guessed while he slid his snout from out from the pouch.
“I know that I definitely wouldn’t have any interest in it if I saw it laying around,” added Sheba. “But at least Bart will be in a much better mood when he sees this tomorrow morning.”
“And you can bet it’ll make our run to the next town a lot easier on us,” Lasher said cheerfully.
“Maybe, but we still have to do it without much sleep,” Meesha grumbled, and turned back in the direction of the river. “So let’s hurry up and get back to that pen so we can get a few winks before Bart wakes up.”
“That would be the best idea you mutts have had all night,” a thin, menacing voice interrupted.
All of the dogs froze when they saw a male and female lynx emerge from atop the slope just behind them. The pair of wildcats grinned as they stared down at the dogs with their cold, calculating eyes.
“You mongrels have caused us a lot of trouble tonight,” said the male lynx, who was slightly larger than the female and wore several scars across his neck and chest. “All of your barking and yelping has made such a racket that it scared off the prey we’ve been trying to hunt.”
Although plenty intimidated herself, Meesha visibly kept her composure and replied casually to the lynx.
“Sorry for all of the disturbances, we’ll be right on our way, then,” she said.
The female lynx loosed a devilish laugh. “It’s a little too late for that now,” the wildcat said. “We could have followed that hare who lead you along back to his nest and made a nice meal or two out of him and his family, but then we realized that we could get a much nicer dinner if we found you dogs, instead.”
Sheba stepped ahead of her companions and showed her teeth with a smirk. “You should have followed the hare; it would have been a much smarter choice,” the golden-hiared Chinook threatened.
The female lynx found humor in Sheba’s poise. “Do you really think that you pups are any kind of match for us?” she asked.
“Of course; why should I be afraid of a cat barely bigger than myself?” Sheba answered coolly.
The male lynx wanted no more to do with taunts, and slowly began to bring himself down the slope towards the dogs. He never lifted his eyes off the hounds, which glowed more and more with each ominous step that he took. “You’re nothing but a group of slave dogs,” he spat, mocking the sled dogs close relationship with humans. “You don’t have a clue what you get yourselves into when you think you can survive out in the wild, especially without your master around to protect you all.”
Lasher now stepped forward, joining with Sheba and showing just as much readiness to clash with the lynx. “You’re going to be very surprised to find out what we can do together,” he snarled.
As Lasher and Sheba kept themselves between the lynx and the others, Meesha grew increasingly worried for their safety. Even though it was five of them against two lynx, she was well aware that the lynx had the advantage. They were expert hunters born and bred in the harshest of environments, and spent their entire lives fighting to survive using a feral cunning which domestic dogs could never equal.
“Well, they’re certainly ready to fight, no matter how much of it is just talk,” she whispered to Pharos, indicating the defiant Lasher and Sheba. “But how exactly are we going to get out of here with all of us in one piece?”
“I’ve already explained it to Tauskey,” Pharos answered just as quietly, and started toward Lasher and Sheba. “When I say ‘now’, Tauskey is going to grab the cross and start running. We need you to follow behind him and head straight back to town. Make sure nothing happens to him, and neither of you stop until you get there; the rest of us will meet up with you before the end of the night.”
Meesha’s jaw slacked. “Are you crazy? Pharos, one of you is going to get killed if you—”
“Now!” the old husky exclaimed as he interrupted Meesha. Several things happened when Pharos gave the signal. Even before he finished, he was running straight at the male lynx alongside Lasher and Sheba. The three dogs took the wildcats completely by surprise, pouncing on the male and slashing at him with their teeth before either lynx could even react.
With the lynx distracted, Tauskey picked up the leather pouch containing the cross in his mouth and bolted from the fray. Even though Meesha had not even finished speaking before Pharos shouted, and was reluctant to follow through with their spontaneous plan, she instinctively ran off just behind Tauskey. The two pulled away with frantic speed, and Tauskey remained several strides ahead of Meesha while his legs were a blur above the snow.
“Tauskey, you’re going to leave me behind if you keep running that fast!” Meesha called out to him.
Even though Tauskey had the cross and its bag in between his jaws, the young dog did he best to yell back to her. “Weef gotta get back taf the town af faft af weef can!” he said, the bag muffling his voice.
Meesha groaned as she struggled to match Tauskey’s pace. “Where does he get all of this energy from?” she murmured to herself. “I never had that much when I was his age…”
* * * * *
Lasher, Sheba, and Pharos were a hurricane of fury as their melee with the lynx ensued. The three dogs never separated. Two were always on one lynx, while the third dog fended off the other lynx just enough to wall it off; never allowing the two cunning cats to join together. They acted just as a wolf pack, constantly dividing their opponents in the midst of battle, while using their own numbers to overwhelm their foes.
On occasion the dogs were able to strike at a lynx three-on-one and completely overpower it for a moment, before one dog would jump back into position and block the other lynx off from its mate. The dogs snapped their jaws ceaselessly, scraping and tearing at the lynx with their canine fangs. Sheba and Lasher also regularly launched themselves straight at one of the wildcats, lashing out with paw and bulk alike as they struck the lynx like javelins.
But even while employing their crafty strategy so successfully, the dogs were well aware that they could never hope to match their foes’ savagery. The lynx bore natural weapons in their claws, which flashed at every instant during the battle and batted the dogs away while they tore through fur and skin, and their nimble feet let them bounce about the snow as they gradually overcame the dogs’ separation tactic.
When they finally did manage to find their way around the trio, and the two lynx came together and cornered the sled dogs against the base of a nearby slope. Every beast’s mouth was agape from the wear of the brawl, and each one wore multiple scrapes on their bodies. Blood was sprinkled about the snowy floor which the lynx slowly crept across as they advanced upon the dogs.
“You mutts were right about at least one thing; you’re not even half as weak as I thought you’d be,” the male lynx admitted with a wide grin across his scarred face. “But you made a grave mistake by not running off with your other two friends.”
Lasher growled frustratingly. “I hate to agree with him, but he’s right,” the Malamute whispered to his companions. “We’re not going to last much longer against them.”
“I think we have to trust our own legs now, and hope that Tauskey and Meesha have ran off far enough,” Pharos said.
Lasher nodded, but kept his narrowed eyes on the approaching lynx. “Alright, when I shout, we make a break for the river,” he explained. “And if we’re lucky, we all may just get out of this alive…”
“Have you pups had enough for tonight now, or are you still looking to be cleaved up into bloody chunks before your last breaths?” the female lynx taunted.
Sheba stamped her foot while the hair on her back bristled. “Come and get us, whiskers,” she jeered.
The lynx leaned back on their hind legs for barely a split second before pouncing toward the dogs, and Lasher bellowed the command.
Just as the lynx were about to fall upon the dogs, the hounds bounded out of their way and sprinted off through the woods. The lynx had hardly touched down upon the ground before they gave chase and followed after the dogs, who hurried on toward the river at a desperate pace.
“Both of you keep on running ahead, I’ll take care of the ice on the river!” Lasher stated as they neared the frozen stream.
“Are you sure about this one?’ Sheba asked, and her heart was racing as they quickly neared the icy surface of the once flowing waters.
“Trust me on this one,” Lasher replied, and glanced back out the tail of his eye. The Malamute did not see Sheba and Pharos speed across the river, far less cautiously than they had earlier that night, or the several fractures which emerged in the ice beneath their paws. He only saw the two lynx coming up behind, and gaining on him with every spring.
When he came to the river’s edge, Lasher did not set his paws onto the frozen floor, but leapt into the air above it. He came down about midway across, and struck at the ice as mightily as he could with his legs. A loud crack echoed throughout the forest when he landed. Lasher could feel the ice splinter and fragment under his paws, and the Malamute was like lightning as he darted to the opposite shore.
Just as he reached the solid riverbank beyond, the lynx pounced onto the collapsing stream. Before they even heard the ice shatter about them, they fell through the frozen floor and into the frigid waters below. Had they touched down further inward, they would have sunk beneath the ice and been trapped within the bitter cold depths. As it was, they managed to scamper back to the bank and out of the shallows, hollowing in utter panic as their bodies were chilled to the bone. When they reached the safety of the bank they did not even spare a final look at the sled dogs on the opposite side of the river, but only sped off into the woods, still trying to shake off the icy water from their drenched coats.
Lasher stood and watched them disappear further into the thicket until they were beyond the reach of his eyes. His tongue hung past his lips as he panted incessantly, but his tail began to wag back and forth as Sheba and Pharos approached him.
“I have to be honest with you two…” Lasher began, short of breath, and then looked over at his companions with a wily smile. “I didn’t think much of that plan would actually work.”
Both Sheba and Pharos laughed, and Lasher was quick to join them. The three dogs started to leisurely trot away from the river, back on their path which would eventually return them to the town, their pen, and Bart.
“I don’t think many animals could come up with something like that on the spot and get away with it,” Sheba replied with a chuckle while they walked.
“That’s because we all know each other so well that we can anticipate exactly what we’ll do when we get into a situation like that,” Pharos added.
“Well, I guess it was a good thing that we talked so many times before about what we’d all do if we ever found ourselves with no way out of a fight,” Lasher concluded. “Although, let’s face it, if it wasn’t for the river around here, we probably wouldn’t be talking to each other right now. I can’t say I ever expected us to have to do something like this against lynx out in the middle of the wild.”
“There are a lot of things that happened to us today that I didn’t expect…” Sheba groaned, clearly tired from the night’s many events.
“Another thing I didn’t expect was to see you in the middle of that fight, Pharos,” Lasher snickered. “I didn’t think a hound your age could still throw fangs like that.”
“I may not have the same strength that I used to, but I already know more about how to fight than you ever will in your life,” Pharos snorted, even though he was well aware that Lasher only tossed out a harmless joke between longtime friends. As they continued along, they began to notice more and more paw prints in the snow from a pair of dogs, and their noses told them that it was those of Tauskey and Meesha.
“So, do you boys think that those two are going to find their way back to town on their own?” Sheba asked. “After all, wherever they end up running, we’re following them to.
Lasher shrugged nonchalantly. “I sure hope so,” he answered, and then grinned. “But at least this time if we all get lost, I can’t be blamed for it.”
* * * * *
Lasher let out a big yawn as he stood in the sled’s traces with his companions positioned behind him. Hardly three hours had passed since they returned to their pen from their journey through the Alaskan wilderness in the night. None of the dogs had gotten very much sleep, and they had even less time to rest their tired legs.
Bart awoke just after the sun poked above the distant mountains to bring dawn’s first light to the Klondike. After providing the dogs with a bowl of water each, he loaded them into their harnesses and prepared himself to head off toward the next town for his delivery of spruce needles.
As Lasher’s eyes blinked rapidly, he managed to spot Meesha come up from behind him as far as her reins would allow. The tan Greenland Dog had a grin on her face as she playfully smacked her rump against his.
“Feeling a little tired there, buddy?” Meesha asked.
Lasher showed her as sincere of a smile as he could with his weary face. It’s definitely starting to catch up to me, now,” he answered, “But I think I can make it through this run today without much trouble.”
“You better be able to, after you played that trailblazer act for all of us last night,” Meesha laughed.
Lasher chuckled himself, and the Malamute looked back at Sheba, Tauskey and Pharos. “What about the rest of you? You all feel like we can make it to town without collapsing?”
“Maybe not during the run, but as soon as we actually get there, I’m planning to drop flat onto my side,” Sheba said. “And none of you better wake me up before I’m ready to.”
“You don’t have to worry about me doing that,” Tauskey assured as he struggled to keep his head from hanging at the snowy ground. “I’m going to sleep for a whole day if Bart lets me.”
The dogs all heard a door slam, and they looked ahead to see Bart and his friend Will exit the tavern. Although Bart had loaded the dogs into their harnesses and was almost ready to depart, he still had not noticed that the knapsack carrying his cross lay on the floor of his toboggan with the rest of his cargo.
“Do any of you think he’ll ever figure it out that we went and brought the cross back for him?” Meesha asked as the young man approached them.
“If he ever should, he better give each of us an entire slab of bacon for all of the trouble we went through,” Pharos muttered, and then went quiet as Bart and Will came to their side.
* * * * *
“Well, I wish I wouldn’t have had such bad luck during my visit here,” Bart said as he slipped on his thick wool gloves. “But it was sure good to see you again, Will; you’ve still got the best whiskey of any bar I know.” Bart offered his hand to Will, who gladly shook it.
“Always great to see you, too, pal,” Will replied, and was unable to hide a snicker. “I’ve got to admit, though, I’m surprised if you can remember even talking to me at all last night.”
Bart showed him a resentful look. “I may have had more whiskey than normal, but I didn’t drink anywhere near as much as you’re trying to say I did,” he argued.
Will just rolled his eyes and shrugged his shoulders. “Whatever you want to believe, Bart, but my wallet inside the bar would tell you differently.”
“And after I get done with this delivery to the next town, I’d like to come back soon and have a drink with you when I’m not in such a bad mood,” Bart added.
“I’m fine by that, but do me a big favor and first make sure that nothing happens to you along your run,” Will said. “And take good care of your dogs, too.”
“You know, I still can’t figure out where they got some of those cuts on them,” Bart expressed. “I never took them through any kind of dangerous bramble on the way here.”
“Do you they may have fought with each other?” Will proposed.
Bart was almost offended by the question as he began to head toward the toboggan. “Not a chance; they never do that with each other,” he promptly answered. “Besides, there was no sign of a scuffle inside the pen. No fur, no blood, not even—” Bart went silent in the middle of his sentence, and his mouth remained agape as he stared blankly at his cargo.
“Is something wrong there, bud?” Will asked as he raised an eyebrow.
Bart did not answer him, but crouched down and picked up the pouch containing the cross. He opened it just enough to reveal some of the sacred object, and Will quickly developed a smirk on his face.
“So, is that the cross that you ‘lost’?”
“Y-yeah…” was all that Bart could say for a moment. “Bu-bu-but, where in the world did it come from?”
“It’s probably been sitting on your sled for the last day,” Will said, trying not to laugh.
Bart shook his head. “No!” he blurted, “I shifted through every inch of this toboggan and the cargo for almost half an hour yesterday, and this cross was not here with everything else!” Bart’s eyes began to bounce all about the vicinity as he tried in vain to understand the seashell cross’s sudden reappearance. “I-I just don’t get it…there’s no way I could’ve missed it, but how could…” At that moment, Bart looked over at the pen, and for the first time that morning he noticed a divot in the snow beneath the fence. It appeared as if it were made when something dug its way out of the enclosure. When he stared at it further, he finally saw several sets of faint paw prints which led away from the rut. Even at a distance, and with a light dusting of snow atop them, he recognized the paw prints.
They were the same ones that his sled dogs always made.
Bart’s eyes shot back and forth between the dogs and the pen while he struggled to make sense of it all. But after another moment, the young man’s gaping mouth curled into a blithe smile. He simply shook his head and laughed.
“I’m not even going to try and figure this one out,” Bart said.