by John Little
Writer's Cramp submission 12/23/2020
Head down and eyes lidded, Bark strained against the cold hard leather harness and leaned into the blinding maelstrom. It was an early spring blizzard laden with heavy moisture and the rails of the sled were icing up thick. Sleds run clean and smooth on dry powder, and Bark loved running dry powder. The rhythm of a pack in full stride, the silent whistling swish of clean rails on fresh snow, even the bite of cold Arctic air burning in his lungs, exhilarated the experienced lead Husky. But this snow was neither dry nor powdery. The ice on the rails dug in and dragged through the deep wet snow. But that same snow gave Bark's huge paws and long nails something to bite into.
Six of one ... Bark would rather be done with this particular run, chomping on fresh salmon.
A dark figured loomed up large out of the blizzard. Bark's right front leg was already digging in deep, pushing away to the left. The pack, feeling the tension on their lines change and seeing Bark push left, followed. Bark could feel the weight of the sled shift as the human leaned into the turn. Bark knew where they were, they had run this path many times. The flat open tundra gave way to rolling ground and tall trees. The trees broke the ferocity of the blizzard, but demanded a more attentive team. Especially in a blizzard where Bark could barely see further than the length of the gang-line stretched behind to the sled. Tree trunks, drooping branches bent by the weight of the snow, and dead logs hidden under the snow. Bark knew where most of the hazards lay on this trail, but things changed season to season and a good lead dog had to be sharp.
Half a dozen of the other ... Bark picked the way up the first slope and led the team in a charge down the hill. THIS was running! Bark heard the human grunt and then laugh as she got into the pack's rhythm. They ran. Up the hills and down the dales, they ran and ran and ran. The silence of the forest could be heard over the whisper of the rails, the soft crush of snow under 24 paws, the panting of sled dogs keeping time with their hearts inside and nature without.
It was harder than the tundra. The snow was deeper, the ground heaved up and down, treefall debris reached out treacherously through deep snow cover. And Bark's feet began to hurt. But the team kept going. Until Bark heard Jeanne call out, Whoa! and the gang-line reigned back as she hit the brake.
Bark couldn't see the sun, it was a full whiteout blizzard, but he trusted the human to know when it was time to stop and pack the snow down and dig in for dinner and sleep.
The team looked a little confused as Jeanne secured the brakes and came up to Bark.They felt it was still early as well.
"What's up, Puppy?" She scratched Bark just behind the ear and on the top of the nose, which threatened to send Bark's hind legs quivering.
"You getting too old, old man? You're slowing down a bit. Here let me take a look."
She bent to one knee and when she gasped, Bark knew this wasn't a normal stop.
"Puppy! You paws are bleeding and all iced up!" Jeanne scruffed up Bark's head, grabbed and unhitched the neck- and tug-line and Bark collapsed to the ground. She put her hand out and commanded "Stay", retrieved a small wrap from the sled and bound it carefully around Bark's paws, securing it with a leather strap. She quickly got a fire started near Bark, checked the team for injuries (found none), set up camp, and got the team settled down for the night. When she came back, the ice on Bark's paws had loosened up a bit and she cleaned the ice and blood and trail grit from Bark's paws. Wrapping the paws in linen, she pulled out the dog mittens and put one on each foot. Tossing dinner to the team, Jeanne held Bark back and then hand-fed her favorite pup. Bark saw she kept wiping her eyes and heard her repeatedly mumble words Bark had never heard before. Bark whimpered again, not in pain, but empathy. Something was wrong. Bark licked her salty face and got a big hug in response.
When Bark woke the next morning, Bark's head was cradled in Jeanne's lap. Bark squirmed and Jeanne's eyes opened up.
"Good morning, Puppy." She scratched the husky's cheek just above the back of the long mouth. She pulled at the linens and grunted in satisfaction. Bark struggled to get up but she held him down.
"Not today, Puppy. You're riding now." Bark wasn't sure about the tone of her voice and tried to stand, then yelped in pain.
"Stay". Jeanne got up, rechecked the team, put mitts on all the dogs, broke camp and hitched the team, putting Tigger in Bark's spot. Bark's ears clearly expressed the frustration of the now-dethroned lead dog, but Jeanne reiterated her command and he stayed put. With the team ready, Jeanne wrapped up Bark on the sled and tied down the leather-skinned blanket. Bark put a dejected head on crossed paws festooned with orange and green striped mitts and got a chuckle and head scratch from Jeanne.
The blizzard had let up a bit and with Tigger in the lead, the team struck out for home. At least Bark didn't have to actually run with these infernal mitts. With a bit of smug satisfaction, Bark relaxed and experienced a rare delight of just kicking back and enjoying the dog's life.