This week, The Voice is pleased to present another instalment of Student Fiction from new Voice contributor, Marilyn Oprisan. To learn more about Marilyn, read her bio in AU Profiles, this issue.
The King’s Creek outpost was far enough north that in summer there was neither warmth nor darkness. The half-dozen Mounties stationed there were determined to talk Ken out of his foolhardy plan, but the cabin that served as their headquarters afforded little privacy. They figured they would have to wait until his American friend was asleep, but that took a long time in the midnight sun. Finally, the American dropped off and they had their chance.
“Ken, wake up,” said one, unnecessarily since their movement and muttering around his cot had already awakened him. Ken’s eyes eased open, squinting against the sunlight. The lead dog, Trailblazer, who had been sleeping beside Ken’s bed, was already fully alert and on guard.
“Yeah, we have to talk to you. Come into the kitchen.” They kept their voices low so that the American sleeping in the cot beside would not hear and awaken. Ken followed them into the kitchen and dropped, still half-asleep, onto a chair. Trailblazer trotted along and stood watching.
“Look, I know what I’m doing,” Ken began, hoping to forestall yet another lecture. “I was born and raised in the north. I know how to handle a dog-team. My friend’s always wanted to go on an arctic expedition, and I promised I’d take him for his thirty-fifth birthday. We’ll be fine.”
They spent another half hour badgering Ken. Was he crazy, going off into the wilderness for two weeks for no other reason than to drive around and give his friend an arctic adventure? They had only met Ken a couple of days ago when he had flown in with his American friend, equipment, sled and dogs, but he was a fellow RCMP officer, even if he was on vacation.
Finally Ken ended the matter by saying, “I guess it’s kind of a reverse-Sam McGee thing. I just miss the north and want to spend some time at home again. Can’t you guys understand that?”
They could, so they let him go back to sleep.
Trailblazer trotted to his spot in front of the rest of the dogs who were already in harness and waiting. Ken strapped him up, gave him a last pat on the head and then straightened, looking off into the snowdrifts and grey ridges that made up the landscape ahead.
“This is it, Blaze. We’re off. Just like the old days.” He turned to Rob. “Climb aboard and I’ll wrap you up. You might be cold sitting and doing nothing, so I’ve got extra furs.”
Rob didn’t climb aboard. “You said I was supposed to learn to drive this thing.”
“Tomorrow. Today it’s me and Blaze and the call of the wild.” Ken smiled to himself as he looked out over the sun-lit frozen landscape. He took a breath of frigid air deeply into his lungs and said softly to himself, “Home.” Then to Rob he said, “You’ll have plenty of time to learn to drive. Come on, your chariot awaits.”
When the sun had circled as far west as it was going to that day, Ken decided to make camp for the night. Rob put up the tent while Ken tended and fed all the dogs but Trailblazer. Then, Trailblazer and the two men retired to the tent where Ken fired up their Coleman stove and warmed up their tins of beans and a kettle of tea. Trailblazer preferred hot milk to tea, but made do while they were out on expedition.
After they ate, Ken leaned back against one of the packs and stretched his thermal-sock covered feet towards the stove. Trailblazer lay curled up by Ken’s side, his flank pressed against his man’s flank.
“So, our first day out. How do you like it so far?” The question was directed to Rob. Ken already knew the husky was having a fine time.
“I wasn’t cold. Every movie you see about the North, the dudes are cold. I was great under all those furs.”
“You know what we say in the North?” Ken said while scratching Trailblazer behind the ear. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad dressing.”
“And tomorrow I drive. You promised.”
Rob located their two sleeping bags among the baggage, tossed one to Ken and unzipped the other for himself. “I hate sleeping in this light. It’s spooky.”
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun . . .” Ken quoted with a chuckle as he opened up his sleeping bag.
Trailblazer and the rest of the dog team were good teachers, trotting along at a pace just fast enough to give Rob the right feel for the movement of the sled and just slow enough for Ken to be able to jog along beside, shouting pointers.
By midday Rob felt he had the hang of it and Trailblazer felt he had Rob sufficiently trained. But Ken declined to get onto the sled and ride. “Lazy men ride,” he declared, then seeing his friend’s insulted look he added, “or beginners who aren’t used to running in the snow.”
“I’ll show you who’s a beginner!” To the dogs he called out a sharp “hee-yah!”
Trailblazer picked up on the cue, took control and dashed off at top speed, while Rob bounced along on the back of the sled.
Ken ran off after them shouting, “Rob! Blaze! Wait uuuuuh . . .” He felt resistance against his left foot, a sudden wrench in his ankle and he found himself face down in the snow. He pushed himself up and sat, legs splayed, looking like a toddler sitting in the snow and feeling just as helpless. The ankle throbbed.
Meanwhile Rob and Trailblazer had, at Ken’s cry of pain, made the simultaneous decision to halt the sled and turn it around. Ken watched his human friend jump off the sled and plod through the snow towards him.
“You okay?” Rob held out a hand to pull the Mountie to his feet.
Ken shook his head. “I can’t walk on it. Lift me up onto the sled.”
Ken muttered and groused as Rob lifted him up onto one foot then swung him over onto the sled. “Didn’t look where I was going. Put my foot right into a crack in the ice. Can’t believe it. Just like a rookie,” Ken grumbled as Rob packed furs around him.
“So, what happens now? Can I set off that Emergency Locator Transmitter you showed me?”
Ken snorted. “You’d like that wouldn’t you? Dramatic rescue in the high arctic. The guys would never let me live it down.”
Ken noticed Rob’s look was getting dangerously like real worry.
“It’s only twisted,” Ken said, so firmly that he almost convinced himself it was true. “Let’s drive on for the rest of the day and if it’s not any better by tonight, we’ll camp out one last time and then you can drive back.”
“Or you could stop being an ass-hole and just let somebody come fetch us.”
Ken let out a stream of good-natured curses that fell just a little short of being anatomically feasible and the general gist of which was that he preferred to keep moving.
“Okay, I’ll make you a deal,” Rob insisted, “we’ll camp here for the night. If your ankle’s not better tomorrow, we go back.”
“Now? It’s nowhere near night!”
Rob looked around at the glare of the relentless sun coming off the surface of the snow around them. “Like day or night makes any difference up here. It’s never dark anyway.”
Rob set up camp under Ken’s direction while the dogs watched. Then Rob hopped him over to the tent door, eased Ken inside and settled him onto a pile of furs.
“Well, you’re not going anywhere. I guess I’m going to have to take care of the dogs tonight. Come on, Trailblazer, let’s go out with your buddies.”
“Rob! You know Blaze sleeps inside!”
“Isn’t it bad for a dog to be warm at night and out in the cold in the daytime? I read that somewhere.”
“Huskies are tough. All Northerners are tough.” Ken assured him, then to the husky he said, “Go with him anyway, for company. Make sure he gets things right, then you can come back inside.” The husky got up and walked over to where Rob stood at the door-flap of the tent.
Rob sniffed. “If I was the other dogs, I’d be jealous.” He slipped out of the tent into the wind and sun, followed by Trailblazer, and zipped up the tent-flap behind him.
“You’re attributing human emotions to animals, Rob.” Ken called after them, then settled back against a pile of furs, closed his eyes and concentrated on ignoring the throbbing. All of Rob’s attempts to get him to take the Tylenol in the first aid kit had been met with impolite observations about the American’s parentage.
It was still a little chilly inside the tent so Ken sat up again and scooted himself closer to the stove. His left foot made contact with a tent-pole and a jolt of agony shot up his leg. It took all his control not to yelp. He sat breathing hard for a few minutes, and then leaned over to pump up the pressure chamber on the stove. Normally he knew not to do that inside an enclosed space with the stove still lit, but his mind was occupied with denying the pain and he just forgot.
Ken became aware that his back was cold. And wet. Why? He drifted into a vague consciousness. Memory of the last few moments came back. Bright flash. Big boom. Now it seemed he was lying down flat. That couldn’t be good.
His awareness expanded. He was lying in a puddle of water, face up. Squinting against the light made him realize there was no tent anymore. It also made his eyelids tingle. A moment passed and Ken realized all of him was tingling.
Rob’s face came into view, right up close to his own face.
“Ken! Can you hear me? You’re badly burned. I’m going to call for help. I’ll be right back to you in a few minutes. Hang on.”
The tingling became pain, all over his skin and just under his skin. It didn’t make sense. He’d been wounded before, but never all over his body at the same time. He thought about this and why he wasn’t cold, even though he heard the wind howling and there was no tent. Something about burns?
Rob was talking again. “Nothing’s working! The INMARSAT, the transmitter, they must have been damaged in the explosion.”
Explosion. It was beginning to make a little sense now.
“You . . . ” the sound dragged pain along his throat as Ken forced out the words, ” . . . hurt? Blaze . . . hurt?”
“No, we’re fine. And all the rest of the dogs. You’re the one that got blown up.”
Stupid, stupid to let himself get blown up.
“I’ll have to drive you back myself, but, Ken, that Global Positioning thing isn’t working. You knew the area and we had all that positioning stuff. Damn it, I didn’t pay attention. I don’t know how to get back!” There was panic in his friend’s voice. Ken knew he had to stay calm and take control.
It’s okay, I DO know the area. I’ll give you directions. That’s what he wanted to say, but the only words that Ken’s throat would allow to emerge were “I” and “directions”.
“Okay, I’ll put you on the sled. Stay with me, Ken. Just stay with me. I’m going to drive you back to the outpost. I think you must have some internal injuries, but I can’t tell. I’ll try to be as gentle as I can.”
Ken’s back was out of the water. Somebody was lifting him. The pain that was only in and under the skin before was now also deep inside his gut. No, this definitely wasn’t good.
Rob’s voice came back. “Your coat and the furs and all our first aid stuff got burned up, but there were a few blankets left on the sled. I’m going to wrap you up now. Okay?”
“Turn left . . . after . . . next snow bank.”
Sometimes Ken drifted towards someplace very soft and comfortingly dark. Rob’s voice always called him back, always asking the way. Ken somehow knew he had only to relax, and he would be out of the pain and the constant, searing light. But Rob was so helpless.
“Look for . . . two boulders . . . follow . . . the gully.”
Shameful to shiver like this. Bad dressing.
“Turn right . . . at . . . boulders.”
The sled bounced and sometimes it turned. But it never took Ken to the soft, dark place.
Rob pulled the dogs to a halt. “What now?”
There was no answer at first from inside the blankets.
Rob was answered by a gurgling sound, like a voice from under water. “What . . . time . . .”
Rob pushed four layers of coverings back from his wrist and exposed his watch. “A little after eleven. At night.” he added.
The gurgling gave way to a choke, and then a cough that sent a fine red spray into the air in front of Ken’s face. “Good . . . head away . . . from the sun. Do you . . . see . . . hills?”
Rob swung his back to the sun and peered out into the swirling snow. “Yes! Hills! I see them!”
Ken’s voice hadn’t been loud before but now it was barely audible. Rob crouched beside the Mountie’s head and brought his ear close to the furs. As much as the words themselves Rob had to hear Ken’s voice just to know his friend was still around.
“Go . . . towards . . . hills. Count the . . . third from the left . . . Go . . . there.” The last word was actually a grunting burst of air.
“Right. Just let me have a look at you before we get going.” Rob reached to open the bundle of blankets but Ken’s voice said, “No, keep it closed. I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine,” Rob said this automatically but he did notice Ken’s voice was louder and steadier than it had been just the instant before. Before Rob could reflect on this further, Trailblazer whimpering and twisting about in his harness distracted his attention.
“What now, Trailblazer?” The dog became more and more agitated. Rob went over and undid his harness. As soon as he was loose, Trailblazer bounded to Ken’s side, pushing his nose into the wrappings and letting out a series of pathetic yips.
Rob bent down beside him and petted the animal about his neck and ears. “Ken’s hurt bad, Trailblazer. We can’t stay here. You got to help me get him back.”
Trailblazer ignored him. “Don’t leave!” he begged Ken. The husky was too distressed to notice that, for the first time, he could actually speak to his man.
“It’s too late. I’m sorry, Blaze, I tried to hang on.” Ken felt a little less humiliated when he realized that at least now he could talk without burning his throat.
“But I can’t smell my way home in the snow. I need your eyes. This other one, he doesn’t know where to go. I’m afraid.”
“I’ll get you both back, I promise.”
“Now follow along this ridge, keep it on your left, and in about half an hour you should get to an innook-shook.”
“A marker. Pile of stones shaped like a man. You can’t miss it.”
“You feeling better? You sound better.”
Ken hated to lie to his friend, but the truth wouldn’t get Rob home any faster. “I’m not in pain anymore,” Ken ventured, hoping Rob would be satisfied.
“So maybe we should stop and rest a little. Let me have a look at you.”
“No! You’re almost there! Once you get to the innook-shook, it should be only another few miles to the outpost.”
“Just how stupid ARE humans, anyway?” Trailblazer wanted to know.
“He’s not stupid, he’s just exhausted. He’s been driving for hours.”
“Well, I’m tired, too.”
“Be brave, Blaze. You’re almost there.”
Three of the Mounties came running out of the cabin as the sled pulled up.
“Ken. Hurt.” Rob mumbled before passing out in the snow.
“I’ll take this one.” One of the Mounties hefted Rob onto his shoulder in a fireman’s lift and trotted off.
Another pulled aside the blankets, frowned and then placed two fingers at the base of Ken’s neck. The frown deepened and he took hold of Ken’s forearm, giving it a gentle shake. As he expected, it was completely stiff.
“Look at this. Must have died at least six hours ago, probably more.”
The men stood looking at the corpse frozen in place on the sled.
“How’ll we get him off?”
“Damned if I know.”
“Tell you what, let’s get the dogs first, then we’ll figure it out.”
As they unstrapped the dogs, each man heard a voice and assumed it was the other one talking.
“Trailblazer sleeps INSIDE,” the voice said.
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