The numbing wind bit through the fur on Naluto’s ears. He turned them down, tucking the fur clad leathers close to his body for warmth. An attempt that proved futile for the husky. The brutal storm’s fingers drove icicles into his tightly curled body. A screaming whistle accompanied each gust, pelting him with slush. Never in all his five years as a wheel dog had he felt this bone-chilled.
His ice-crusted eyelids cracked open. Had he drifted to sleep?
He lifted his head and a wall of heavy snow fell to the fill the void up to his chin. Against his back the harness cracked, frozen stiff. He opened his shivering jaws and tried once more to chew through the line tethering him to the team. Pink ice tasting of iron clung stubbornly to the fibers. It squealed against his teeth but refused to yield.
Naluto tried to stand but the weight of the drift-imprisoned line held him fast. Around him they lay like little igloos in the snow: six mounds at the bottom of the treacherous ravine. One large one surrounded by five smaller. The red had long since been erased by the white snow.
Everything encased in the snow. All of the team. He closed his eyes and glimpsed memories of their lolling tongues. The frenzied team barking right before the run when the musher came, harnesses and line in hand. Every time he had wondered what place he would run. Had he earned a chance at lead dog? Or was it another run staring at the curl of another dog’s tail, slush and grit tossed up into his face? The musher played favorites. Only one team member ever got that lead harness. Naluto moved forward in the line, but his view always included a dog rump. At least it had been a run before …
Eagle Summit. He looked up the sheer cliff and his memory struck him like an avalanche.
No, like the avalanche.
Why had the lead dog remained ignorant of its coming? Over the barking and howling, the screaming of the musher, Naluto remembered a strange chirruping cry cutting through the wind. A moment later the snow pack beneath their paws turned to powder and fell away. The world spun and twisted. Impacts soft and hard against his body. The cracks and pops on the way down followed by whimpers and squeals. Then … silence as the white snow became a pink sea. Why had the musher taken this route? Eagle Summit was unpredictable in this season.
None of it mattered now. Naluto studied the largest of the snow mounds. His ears fell back. The mounds sides were smooth, not even a crack from the musher breathing. There would be no help from him.
Naluto summoned up his strength and surged against the bonds. The glazing on his harness squealed against his back. Still held in a squat by the trapped line before and behind, he thrashed until his limbs gave out. The slush claimed the ground he had gained.
He closed his eyes. Out here was what he was born for. Born to chase the lead dog through the land he loved. To dash through snow laden pines and drifted mountain passes, to race over the blue ice of the lakes and rivers. And in the dark of night to stare into the starry skies and follow the trails of light dancing above him. His home had never been one place. These trails were one with him.
The wind changed direction. His eyes opened to the sight of a white paw at the end of his muzzle. Naluto lifted his head, his neck stubborn in the cold. He locked eyes with a fox. Her pale coat sparkled with fresh fallen snow.
She nodded her head and crouched down before his neck. Even through the numbness he felt the vibrations of her teeth sawing the harness. Minutes passed with only the sound of fibers breaking. Then, the harness loosened.
The fox pressed under his chin. Naluto’s stiff limbs creaked as he stumbled. He rested most of his weight on her small body until he could manage to stand on his own. The storm had passed leaving a glaze of shimmering snow.
She made a series of funny chirps and squeals.
Naluto cocked his head. “Tha … thank you.” He glanced back at the discarded harness. “I had been trying to escape that for … I don’t know how long.”
For a moment she stared at him in silence. “Ah. Now I see. You are not of the wild. I thought you a wolf brother trapped by a hunter’s snare.”
“No. I’m not a wolf.” He laughed. So good to be free, even the cold was no longer bothering him. In fact he desired nothing more than to plunge into the snow face first. “I’m a husky. My musher calls me Naluto.”
“Some call me Adgomut.” She padded around him, brushing her tail against his chest. “Musher? You mean your human.”
“Mmm hmm. He takes me and my pack through this wonderful land.”
“You mean you take him. After all, you pull his sled, right?”
“Of course. But it’s so much fun seeing all these things. I mean … just look at that night sky.” Above them it stretched out speckled by countless stars. Rivers of light gleamed against the indigo expanse. Naluto danced on his back paws to reach for the purple and green ribbons. “Where does it go? In my dreams I can run fast enough to grab on and travel those heavenly trails. But I always wake before I reach the end.”
Adgomut did not lift her gaze to the heavens. Her glacier blue eyes studied the husky as he leaped and frolicked in the snow.
“Oh, I was born to run! Born to pull and race through this snow. I belong to this land.”
She flashed her teeth. “Tell me, Naluto, what does your heart desire?”
He paused. The plume of his tail drifting down to hang slack behind him. “I wish to run.”
“Where?” She glanced to the skies. “Along the Aurora’s river of lights?” Her eyes shifted to the to of Eagle Summit. “Or over the land with the snow beneath your paws?”
Silence filled the night air. Naluto lowered his head in thought. Foxes were rumored to be strange creatures, sometimes prone to trickery. But she had saved him, had she not? How bad could a creature be who had freed him from his slushy prison?
When he glanced back at her she sat with her tail coiled around her paws waiting patiently for his reply.
His paws. They weren’t cold. He looked down at them. The snow was pristine, perfect and unbroken where he had danced. He lifted a paw. The snow showed no sign of his presence.
No. No! He darted to the mounds of snow.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six … Seven. All undisturbed. His jaw hung open. No puff of breath crystallized in the air. How could this be?
“Adgomut … I don’t … understand.”
She glided up beside him and exhaled a breath. There were no crystals in the night wind. A somber smile greeted him. “You will. The north wind has brought you to an important crossroad, Naluto. You have a choice. Choose wisely, trail-runner.” She raised her eyes to the ribbons of light. “You may run with your ancestors in the stars.”
The Aurora parted, the lead dog of Naluto’s team danced in the starry trail. Behind him the other dogs frolicked in the pastel heaven. They gazed down at him and smiled. Tongues lolled out of their mouths as they turned and raced into the ethereal pathway.
The fox’s voice shattered the silence. “Or run forever along these earthly trails.”
Naluto stared at the white mounds. A tear trembled in his eye as he looked back into the rivers of light. He stepped toward where the team had gone. Where the lead dog went, he must follow. Even in … death.
He padded to one of the mounds and bowed his head to the entombed lead dog. If only they had known. If only someone had warned them of the dangerous storm coming over Eagle Summit. They would all still be alive.
A strange sound filled the air. A chirruping scream, shrill above the wind. He had heard that before … before the avalanche.
He turned to find Adgomut with her open muzzle to the sky.
She bowed briefly. “The choice is yours. What trail does your heart crave? Heaven or earth?”
The stars shimmered, wreathed in the currents of light. Naluto’s heart lifted to the heavens yearning to run in the eternal race with his ancestors. He reached a paw up toward the light.
A chorus of barking echoed through the pass. He snapped his head up to Eagle Summit. Loose snow balls rolled down leaving behind telltale promises. His eyes turned to the team buried in the snow where no one would ever find them. A team who had served their musher to their very last breath. A team he had served to his last breath.
Naluto threw his head back to the sky. His howl echoed off the peaks of the pass and shook loose the snow pack into a rumbling cascade.
“Whoa! Halt!” resounded the musher’s alarmed cry. “Haw, that’s it, Minnow. We’ll have to go another way.”
Adgomut circled around Naluto and in a swirl of snow … they vanished.
Take care to listen when the wind howls through a wintry pass.
Jennie Brass is New England soul cast into the landlocked upper Midwest. Removed from her birthplace near the ocean, she used her daydreams to escape the field of endless grains. Out of every walk a journey into another world began with marvelous creations populating them. She often chooses voices that some consider aren’t voices at all–those of animals. She helped her brother set up his sled dog teams for Minnesota races in the winter. Currently she lives with three border collies who manager her life for her. She can be found occasionally yammering on her site https://www.facebook.com/BrassQuill