by L. P. V. Johnson
HO-AY, ho-ay!” Kamiak called to his sled team. Alik, the big malemute lead-dog, slowed and stopped, and as the sled came to rest, he moved forward to take the slack out of the tugs. He had three young dogs behind him.
The Eskimo boy had stopped on a ridge. Now he looked back across the wasteland of snow. The village, built around the mission on the shore of the bay, was barely visible in the starlight. His eyes were on the driftwood mission house, a dark blob amid the igloos. There lay Tommy, his white friend, and Tommy’s father and mother, all sick with scurvy. An ugly name for an ugly sickness. White people got it. They became weak and lost their teeth, and then they died. He had told only Tommy of his decision to go to Watling House, the trading post, for the white man’s medicine. There was no time to argue with Avikomiak, his father, nor to wait for his people to make up their minds. Watling House was far away and the need was urgent.
Alik strained at the tugs and Kamiak gave a kicking push to the sled.
Hour after hour Kamiak mushed southwards, following the western shore of the leaden waste of the bay. Beyond Alik’s bobbing head a hazy luminous spot grew on the horizon. It marked the land of the sun beyond the snowy rim of earth. It grew into a misty arch of twilight and then receded again into darkness.
Kamiak called Alik to a halt and made camp. He unhitched the dogs and tied them to the sled, giving a frozen fish to each. Then from the bosom of his parka he took his own supper, a piece of half frozen seal meat. Wrapping himself in a bearskin, he lay down over the layers of provisions and trading skins that filled the long body of the sled. He gnawed at his seal meat and finally went to sleep.
Kamiak awoke and hitched up the dogs and mushed on – on and on for five days. And then he came to Watling House.
The clerk at the trading post stopped sorting skins. There was a questioning look on his lean face as his eyes took in Kamiak’s small stocky figure and the bundle of skins he carried.
“Well, my lad, let’s see your furs… four seal… eight white fox….”
“I came from Tatamigana Mission,” Kamiak announced impatiently.
“Why, that’s nearly three hundred miles up the coast. You come alone?”
“Yes. I came for medicine to cure scurvy sickness. Missionaries sick. Three people. Must hurry back.”
“Well, we can give you apples, potatoes, lime juice. Best cures for scurvy. But look here, lad, I don’t think I can let you go back alone. Now, we’ve a sled patrol. Gone south to look into rumors of a beached whale. Be back in a day or two. They’ll take you home. But first you must get some rest.”
So Kamiak found himself in a dormitory bunk. He lay awake, one hand resting possessively on the precious bag of scurvy cures. Instinctively, he knew that time was equally precious. A delay of days, even of hours, might change life to death. No need to wait for the return of the promised escort. He could make his way home alone – alone and faster. He had found apathy, no sense of urgency, in his village. It was the same here at the trading post. His hand drummed impatiently on the bag of scurvy cures.
Two clerks came into the dormitory and went leisurely to bed. Their talk trailed off at last into a silence broken only by their intermittent snoring. Kamiak raised himself in his bunk. His dogs were tethered to his sled, just beyond the frost rimmed door….
An hour later he was beyond hail of Watling House.
“Hi yah-oop!” he shouted to the bounding sled dogs.
The arch of twilight had come and gone in the southern sky before he camped. He threw frozen fish to the dogs. Now his seal meat was frozen too, for the warmth of his body was reserved for the perishable scurvy cures. The apples and potatoes encased his upper body, a bumpy shifting layer within his parka. He slept only poorly in the bearskin.
The whining of the dogs aroused Kamiak from his half-sleep, and to the west he heard a stealthy tread upon the crusted snow. He stood beside the sled, spear in hand, and watched a wolf pack materialize out of the starlit night. The pack crept forward. Lean, grey, leggy beasts: backs arched, eyes glowering, teeth bared. Already they were beginning to ring him round.
Kamiak detached the restraining thongs from the necks of the dogs. They could fight – or flee – for their lives better without these encumbrances.
The ring of snapping, snarling beasts was tightening. Kamiak threw the rock-like fish and seal meat at the slavering mouths. The females and weaker males gave way to their hunger and crouched to gnaw the food. But the stronger males were not appeased. Hunger-mad, their instincts were still those of the hunter, and they advanced upon their living prey.
The dogs huddled around Alik. The great lead-dog darted, snapping at the snarling wolf heads. Kamiak tipped the sled on end. The back frame was under his feet, the bottom became a shield at his back. The provisions spilled out all around him. He pelted the wolves with frozen blocks of flesh. The dogs crept to his feet and huddled under the protection of his thrusting spear and Alik’s lunging body and snapping jaws.
The fish and seal meat became more and more scattered by the skirmish, and more and more of the attacking wolves chose to pick up a piece of this food and carry it away. In the end there were no attacking wolves. They now dotted the snowscape, well-spaced, each crouching and gnawing at bone-hard frozen flesh. Then Kamiak looked about him and under the huddle of dogs, seeking to preserve such provisions as remained. Not a single fish or piece of seal meat could he find.
At last the wolf pack formed again and moved off westward toward the interior wilderness of snow. They left not a morsel of food.
Kamiak righted the sled and inspected the dogs. They were all badly mauled, and only Alik had use of all his limbs. He put the injured young dogs in the bottom of the sled and hitched up Alik.
Kamiak’s voice had no ring to it, and he ran dejectedly behind the sled pushing his full weight to ease Alik’s load. They stopped to rest weary legs, and Kamiak looked about for game. There was none. The loons, gulls, and eider ducks had gone south months ago. Later when he made camp, he took up his spear and walked out on the shore ice looking for seal holes. There were none. He came back to the sled and fed snow to the wounded dogs. Then he rolled himself in the bearskin. The northern lights streamed up to the top of the sky, a shimmering, fluttering curtain, a curtain flung to the winds, whipping out fluted folds of yellow, green, and violet, and fraying at the edges with added tints of red and orange and white. Kamiak wondered if he only imagined the crackling, lashing sound. Alik drew himself to his haunches and greeted the spectacle with long howls that died away in mournful wails. Then Alik fell quiet and Kamiak slept.
They were on their way long before the dim twilight arch showed in the southern sky. Alik pulled ahead as purposefully as Kamiak pushed from behind. Alik was hungry too thought Kamiak. But he didn’t have the constant reminder of food. That was the worst of it. To be girdled with food and to be denied, in one’s hunger, any morsel of it. The primitive philosophy of his race, the stoicism of living only for the day, welled up in his breast. He fought it off – fought off the temptation to take the ready food from his bosom.
They stopped next at Alik’s protest. He lay panting in his harness a while and then got up. Then on again. Kamiak was beginning to droop in weakness, and he felt waves of utter tiredness sweep over him. And the hunger gnawed on.
All sense of time left Kamiak. There was only the onward struggle; resting when he must, going on when he could.
The time came when Alik could no longer tighten the tugs that ran from his breast collar to the sled. When it was clear that he could go no farther, Kamiak tied him to the sled and covered him and the other dogs with the bearskin. Kamiak trudged on alone. He would send back for the dogs.
Now Kamiak stopped only when he stumbled and fell with exhaustion. But his body always gathered strength again, and his spirit always forced him to lift himself once more to staggering legs. The food around him was no longer a temptation; it was only a weight, an increasing load that was almost beyond his strength to carry for another step. But he always made that other step. Then even the sense of tiredness left him. He was conscious only of which way was north, and of something that burned in his head and rang in his ears and would not let him give in.
He topped a rise on lurching legs and supported himself for a moment on his spear. His wavering eyes barely picked out the cluster of specks that marked his village where the desolation of snow met the more desolate shore.
Kamiak collapsed at the mission door. He gripped the driftwood jamb, and as his senses left him, his spear clattered against the door.
His first awareness was of being propped up in Tommy’s bed. Next, of taking great gulps of warm broth. Then he saw the fruit that he had brought overflowing a basket on the table. Tommy’s mother held the cup to his mouth again. Tommy’s father said, “The Lord be praised!” Tommy himself opened the door. Alik and the three young dogs bounded in. The dogs limped.
“Wolf trouble,” said Kamiak
Hand set in Deepdene. Display type is Craw Modern. Initial is Gill Floriated. Paper is 70-lb. vellum text; cover is Sorg’s 90-lb. Leather- finish. (A few copies have another cover.) Edited and published by Jake Warner and 510 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.
This story was obtained from the Manuscript Bureau.