Buck had arrived at the trading station a day before the storm hit, so he was sitting comfortably at the Malamute Kid's table, mopping up the last of his flour gravy with a lump of bread, and trading stories when the first gust hit, blowing out the single window before the Kid could rush to put in the shutter. A moment passed while the men sat in stunned silence. The roar of the wind grew louder. The entire lodge groaned as each heavy log reluctantly accommodated the push of the gale against it. And then the door blew open with a frightful clatter, and all that could be seen outside was a wall of white.
It took them half an hour of methodical work to secure the lodge and relocate the dogs to the lee side of the house - and all the while the storm kept raging with a wind that cut like a white-hot knife and brought down several inches of heavy, stinging snow that gathered in every possible cavity and froze as the temperature rapidly dropped. There was no time to talk, but both men were born and bred in the Northland. They knew by heart how to react, and save for a few directions and hand signals, no words were necessary.
As soon as all that had to be done was done, they got back inside to the dark, warm lodge and shrugged off their coats, hanging them up high by the chimney pipe, where they would dry out the quickest.
“Great Scott!” Buck exclaimed, the first to break the silence.
The Kid nodded at everything that exclamation implied – a snow storm of that magnitude, this early in the winter! None of them had seen anything like it, not in a whole life lived in the fickle Arctic weather. Standing inside in the safety of the cabin, their thoughts turned to people they knew who might be on the trail, and their moods turned sombre.
Buck's thoughts immediately turned to Caroline Fraser. She was still out in the summer cabin, and her husband Robert Fraser, Buck's own best friend, was more than eighty miles away in Immiaq with their only team. The cabin was ten miles out of the nearest town, Dauphin, through difficult terrain, and Buck knew that it was not properly stocked, since Caroline had planned to spend the winter in town with her parents-in-law because of the pregnancy.
Buck had last been there several weeks ago with Robert Fraser, and now he tried to estimate how much the log pile that he remembered could have been augmented in those weeks, if Robert had killed any large game in the few days he had been home before setting out for Immiaq, and if Caroline had the clothes, the food, and the equipment to last her if this weather held for very long.
She was eight months pregnant, and so she couldn't have expected to stay in the cabin for much longer. It wasn't build for staying in through heavy storms, and it wasn't prepared for winter. The kind of hard work that a blow like this entailed would be strenuous if not impossible for Caroline to manage.
A decision was already forming in Buck's mind, and so while his mind was turning over these calculations he was also listening carefully to the noise of the wind, trying to gauge the direction and the force of the gale, the amount of snow being thrown against the cabin.
“Henderson Pass is going to be closed off if this weather continues for more than a couple of hours,” he said, and the Malamute Kid, who also had been standing in preoccupied silence, engaged in his own calculations, looked up at him.
The Kid blinked, as if to clear his mind.
“George Fraser's got a broken leg on him, I had to take the doctor to him myself.” he said, following Buck's train of thought. And then, almost regretfully, “And anyhow, I don't reckon they've got a proper team of dogs at all in Dauphin, right now. Since Gundarson and the Cossack are out at Fort Thomas with skins.”
The men fell silent.
Bob and Caroline's cabin was ten miles out of Dauphin through Henderson Pass. In winter, when the snow was high, you could forego the pass and take your sled over Little Bear Lake. But that was not possible this early in the season. The water hadn't frozen yet, and anyone trying to get to Dauphin from the East would be forced to go around the lake, adding at least fifty miles of rough terrain to the journey.
“With the wind blowing from the east, the pass is bound to be covered soon,” Buck said. “Caroline's too smart to try it on foot.”
The trading station was sixty miles from Caroline's lodge. Buck had a team of rested dogs and a good night's sleep behind him. And the open terrain, while not without its own dangers, would make for smoother travelling. Following Buck's train of thought, the Malamute Kid was making new assessments in his head, considering what food and equipment he could offer Buck on the journey.
None of them wanted to give voice to the possibility that Caroline could have been caught out in it, setting snares or gathering firewood, in insufficient clothing, in white-out conditions. Saying it wouldn't change anything, anyway. There was nothing to do as long as the storm was raging.
It took fourteen hours for the storm to blow over. The next day the sky was clear as far as the eye could see. But it was uncommonly cold. Both men felt it as soon as they stepped out of the cabin. This was not just the regular bite of winter frost that they were well accustomed to. Their breath instantly settled on their cheeks and chins like frost, and within minutes even their eyelashes were coated with white.
It was far too cold to be travelling across the open wilderness. The Malamute Kid knew not to protest that it was too dangerous. These were the odds you sometimes had to take, living in a climate where the difference between life and death could be determined by something as seemingly innocuous as a pair of wet socks, a broken axe, or a sudden change in weather. Still, his expression was grim as he helped Buck check that everything was secure, and he couldn't help but offer well-known advice as they prepared the sled.
“Don't take your mittens off unless you absolutely have to,” he said, checking the dogs' harness, “Eat often, don't be too lazy to heat up water, either... And be careful not to work up a sweat.”
Buck nodded and worked on, taking the advice for what it was, until finally he was ready to set off. When he stepped onto the sled, the Kid moved away, clapping his hands together.
“This ain't weather for travelling out alone.”
It was a law of the North that no man travel out alone at fifty below. Both men knew it. The wind could bring down piles of snow, hold up travellers for weeks, obscure both sight and sound - but it still wasn't as dangerous as the quiet, killing cold when the temperature dropped below fifty. The frost would punish you brutally for any mistake you made: it would freeze extremities left uncovered within minutes, slow your entire body down, make you confused and dumb with dehydration before you even felt thirsty.
“It should take me no more than two and a half days to get there if I don't spare the dogs,” Buck said for an answer. “I should be able to kill some large game out by the cabin. If the weather changes for the better, we might try to come back here, otherwise we'll hunker down. Tell anyone passing through where we are.”
The Malamute Kid nodded, and with that Buck shouted to the dogs, and they set off yelping and barking towards the white horizon.
The trading station disappeared from view behind them. Buck kept shouting encouragements to the dogs who where loath to move away from the safety of the treeline and go out into the open terrain. Despite the ominous weather and the reluctant dogs, Buck was relieved to be out on the trail after a hard night.
He had never been fond of thinking too long or too hard about things if it wasn't in his power to change them, but the whole night he had been unable to ward off worried thoughts of the woman he had once been in love with, and his closest friend, whom she had eventually married. He had long since replaced his boyish infatuation with Caroline with a deep and familiar affection, and he could not bear to think that any harm had come to her. He knew that his partner must be tortured by worry, more than five days of hard travelling away from his wife. But he could not fault Robert, either, knowing that Caroline never would, and knowing that he himself would have made the exact same decisions, had he been in Robert's shoes.
No, it was better to be on the trail, he reflected. He had his lunch of bacon-greased biscuits wrapped in a handkerchief and tucked against his naked skin where it wouldn't freeze. He was travelling light, carrying pemmican and dried salmon for himself, one pound of tallow per dog per day for three days, so he could feed them often and keep up their strength and speed in the cold.
He had decided last night that his best option would be to go slightly west of the cabin, travelling up the ice of Dog Creek, where the snow was thin and where he would be sheltered on both sides by the spruce-covered slopes. It would save him travelling across the flatlands, where he would be prey to the piercing wind, and where the landscape could quickly change with another blizzard. But Buck knew all too well that this was only the lesser of two evils. Even though the creek was narrow it flowed fierce and deep with melt-water all summer, and this early in the cold season he couldn't be certain that it was frozen through.
He spotted the wolf shortly after midday, about ten miles after turning onto the ice. At first it was just a shadow flitting in and out between the trees at the corner of his eyes, but the dogs' anxious looks towards the side assured him that he wasn't just seeing things.
Soon he got a good enough look at it to confirm that it was indeed a grey wolf. It was ducking in and out of sight, but clearly keeping pace with the sled. Buck watched it with interest and some apprehension. It was a younger animal, grey coated, lean but not emaciated. Maybe it was sick or maybe it had been cast out from its pack. Buck had heard of wolves that became so famished and so lonely that they'd trail after teams like this, attaching their last hope to an unlikely prey, or simply starving for contact. A part of him contemplated getting out the rifle, but there was no intent behind it, only habit. Buck was not one of those Southland newcomers who would shoot anything they could turn up on the trail. He needed neither the pelt nor the acrid carnivore meat, and so he let it be.
The ice on Dog Creek seemed solid. Buck made sure to hug the shore, where the ice was thickest. They made good time, and the steady pace kept both dogs and man warm. At two o'clock, Buck stopped to feed the dogs and eat his lunch.
Opening his parka to retrieve the biscuits, the air was like a slap across his chest, knocking his breath away. Startled, he realised that his briefly exposed fingers were already going numb. It really was frightfully cold. It was as if the storm had blown away all the clouds that had kept a lid on the small bit of autumn warmth still clinging to the ground, and had left the land exposed to the empty, freezing dome of the polar atmosphere.
Buck didn't dare stay seated while he ate, so he walked back and forth to keep his circulation going while he quickly finished the biscuits. Experienced though he was, he realised that he had still managed to underestimate the force of the frost. After finishing his lunch, he measured out another quarter pound of tallow for the dogs. He got out the moose-hide containing the pemmican and ate a carefully-measured handful. They would all need more food and water than he had calculated to fight off hypothermia if this weather held.
When he looked out across the wilderness, he saw the wolf again. It was slinking back and forth, just outside of shooting range, as if it could see a visible line that it knew not to cross. It lifted its muzzle, undoubtedly scenting the food on the wind. It swayed unsteadily. Buck watched it for a while, once again contemplating getting out his rifle.
“It's hungry all right, Robert,” he mumbled. He had an unconscious habit of addressing his partner even when he wasn't there.
The rest of the day, the wolf stayed out of sight. The creek narrowed and started its twisting, rocky, upwards climb over what was known in summer as the Yakaga Rapids. The dogs leaned into their harnesses, and Buck had to watch carefully to avoid any protruding rocks that might damage the sled.
When he made camp that evening, he made sure to tether the dogs close to the tent, and he double-checked that the metal clasps on the grub-box were all secured. He didn't like the possibility of having a hungry wolf hanging around camp, but in the half-dark and ever-increasing cold, he did not want to go looking for it, and he could not keep watch. Not for the first time did he curse the fact that he was travelling alone. If Robert had been with him, one of them could have patrolled the area, while the other set up camp and made sure that there was a heated tent and a sleeping bag to return to.
As it was, he set up the tent and boiled a quarter pound of dried salmon to mush, which he ate in the tent, revelling in small creature comforts. He was exhausted by the day's work, but it still took him a little while to fall asleep after he crawled into the sleeping bag. The day had been filled with the sounds of the dogs, large bodies of snow shifting and moving in the wind, the sled's timber creaking across the uneven ice. The windless night was as quiet as the dark, star-speckled void above. Buck thought of the many nights he had slept in a tent with his partner breathing quietly across from him, and how that small noise had helped him fall asleep.
He woke up the next morning with the pale, filtered light illuminating the inside of the tent. It did not take him long to register that the heavy frost had not broken. His spirits fell, and he had to force himself to get out of the sleeping robes and into the frigid air.
When he stepped outside the tent he was met by a strange sight: On the sled the thick leather windings around the grub-box had been undone, and the box had been pushed to the ground, where it stood, right side up, with the clasps undone and the lid slid neatly to the side. When he investigated, Buck found two pounds of tallow missing, but no sign of the ravaging frenzy that he would have expected from a hungry dog or a wolf. The snow around the sled was trampled. Individual tracks were indiscernible, but circling out, Buck found the imprints of wide paws, already dusted over with drift snow, headed up the riverbed ahead of him. Easy to guess where his two pounds of tallow had gone.
“You queer devil.”
He could not for the life of him fathom how the wolf had managed it. This unsettled him more than the lost food. He could feed the dogs less. If need be he could steer away from the riverbed and try to find some game, and if that failed he would kill one of the dogs and the remaining food would go farther to feed the rest. But it was all going to slow them down, he thought regretfully. He knew now that getting to the lodge quickly was not just a matter of aiding Caroline, but had also become a matter of his own survival.
He walked back to the sled. The box was solid metal, and he knew he'd closed the clasps tightly. This was a trick he had never heard of an animal being able to pull off. Even the dogs had slept through the raid. Buck shook his head, disbelieving. He refastened the box and went to rouse the dogs. Before he set off, he unpacked the sheath containing his standard issue rifle and tied it to the right stanchion where it would be easy to reach.
There had been no snowfall during the night. The last remains of wind had died down completely, leaving the landscape silent and still. But the heavy frost continued, and even though it pained him to spend the time, Buck made sure to stop every two hours, to feed the dogs and heat a quart of water for himself on the stove, which he drank down with a handful of frozen pemmican.
They were still in the rapids. Once or twice they had to work around timber jams, and once or twice the dogs, tired and unsettled, got into fights that Buck had to break up, kicking and shouting at the top of his lungs. For each stop he measured the tallow, his own provisions, the fatigue beginning to settle deep in his bones. He kept a careful eye on his left swing dog, which had begun falling back until the dog behind it made sure with snaps and snarls that it regained pace. It was a large St. Bernard mutt that he had bought only recently, and it was still not quite accustomed to Arctic travelling. Buck sacrificed half a pound of his own salmon to feed it, the next time they stopped. He could better stand to starve than the dog, and anyway, he anticipated that he could reach the lodge by midnight, if he travelled through the night, barring any hold-ups.
All day, he noticed that he was following the wolf's tracks, as if the animal was racing him.
They passed into the narrow, high-sloped gullies above the rapids, and shortly after he sensed a change in the dogs. His lead dog lifted its nose in the air and whined, and the whole team started whimpering, slowing down around each bend. Buck kept goading them on, but he could tell that something was scaring them.
They grew more and more pitiful, until turning around a sharp bend, Buck was met by a peculiar sight. It was the wolf, again. But this time it wasn't slinking behind the sled, or hiding between trees; it was right in front of them, some ten yards down ahead. Buck could see it running back and forth across the narrow width of the frozen river, head trained towards them, like a guard on patrol. The sled dogs tucked their tails low at the sight, slowing down to a crawl with their bellies against the ground – afraid, like most domesticated dogs, of their wilder cousin.
“You are a peculiar devil, aren't you?”
Buck had never seen a wild animal behave like this, and he wondered absently if maybe the weather had made it mad. He reached down toward the rifle. The wolf stopped in its tracks, its eyes fixed on them.
And then Buck heard it: a low, creaking sound below his feet. It was muffled by the snow and too faint for him to have picked up if he head been going at full speed, with the timber of the sled creaking, the empty coffee can hanging from the handle-bow clanking against the stanchion, and the dogs yelping and barking.
It was the sound of ice shifting and breaking somewhere deep underneath him, and as the dogs indecisively inched forwards, the sound grew stronger.
When the dogs stopped completely, Buck cautiously stepped off the sled. Immediately, the surface ice started cracking with a sharp, crisp sound. Like a net of spider web spreading out in front of him, Buck could see the cold water oozing up in long lines along the fractures, turning the snow dark.
The wolf yipped anxiously. An instant later, the lead dog broke through the ice with a howl of surprise and fear. The wolf took off. The sound of the ice cracking was growing into loud, explosive noises. Buck yelled for the wheel dogs to pull back, pull back god damn it, while he himself was straining backwards at the handlebow.
Pulling back and turning right off the frozen riverbed, struggling up the steep slope, they narrowly avoided going under in the bad patch of ice.
They had managed to escape breaking through, but Buck soon realised that his troubles weren't over. The hard work had made him sweat excessively underneath his parka and already the dampened clothing was stealing away the heat from his body. Out of the gully, in open country, he could feel the wind picking up. The tree cover here was sparse and low to the ground.
He had entered the barren lands and now he could see what he had been unable to detect in the gullies: on the horizon, the low, heavy clouds of a blizzard were approaching.
Buck did not spend any time cursing his hard luck. He did not pause to regain his breath or to drink to replace the lost fluid. He knew that here was no time to spare if he wanted to live through the oncoming storm.
The small trees didn't really offer any protection against the wind. After setting up the tent, Buck hung up his coat on a nearby tree, to dry out as much as possible, as he set about building a snow wall to shelter him against the brunt of the wind. The experienced dogs were already beginning to dig out nests for themselves in the snow. They knew what was coming. Buck helped the new dogs, using his shovel to dig holes for them in the snow.
The sky was turning charcoal grey, pregnant with precipitation. The wind chill was stealing the warmth right out of his breath, and making his exposed upper body prickle with needle and pins as the hot blood withdrew from his muscles to envelop his inner organs. Buck secured the sled with rope and pegs. He threw his coat into the tent, then crawled in after it.
He knew what he had to do. He needed to get the stove started. He needed to get out of his damp clothes and into his sleeping bag. But he was overcome with the deep fatigue that comes with working too hard in the cold. He was gasping on the ground, coughing up a hot taste of iron in his mouth. He lay motionless.
Outside the darkness was gathering. Buck realised with a sinking feeling that he could not return to the frozen river even after the storm. It would be too difficult to tell if the ice was sound in the deep gulleys. If it hadn't been for that wolf, he would have gone under, and even if he could have managed to crawl back onto the ice, he would not have survived being drenched to the bone.
He idly wondered if Robert was out on the trail, too. Maybe he would get to the cabin if Buck didn't. He thought about Caroline, envisioning her easy smile, her small weather-worn hands, the swell of her belly underneath her dress while she sat by the fire. She was reading quietly, waiting while Robert and he discussed their route to the cabin, now that they couldn't travel on the ice. Caroline looked up at them with a smile in her eyes. It was warm by the fire, and it made him feel so very tired. So very, exquisitely tired...
Buck startled awake in the dark. He was looking up at the fabric of the tent billowing in tight ripples around him. The canvas hissed and snapped with each gust of wind. The storm had hit. He couldn't have slept for more than a few minutes, but it frightened him that he had lost consciousness like that. With great effort he sat up and beat his hands together, forcing some feeling into his numb fingers.
It took him several tries to undo the knots in the rope around his sleeping bag. Once inside it, he wrestled out of his trousers. Then he rolled them together and placed them by his feet inside the bag. He reached down and pulled off his wet socks, too. He hoped that the heat of his body would dry the clothing out overnight. He folded his slightly damp inner coat for a pillow. He was very tired.
Resting his head on the bundle, his eyes fell on his unopened rucksack standing at the opposite end of the tent. It was then he realised his mistake: he should have lit the stove first. The cold had made him confused. Now, to light the fire, he would have to move across the tent and unpack the rucksack to find the matches, and set up the stove. No, he reasoned, his best chance was to get some rest first – just a couple of hours, and then he would get up. If he hadn't already been half-asleep, he never would have made this decision.
He dreamt about Caroline. The thin, fresh air never failed to make his dreams exceedingly vivid. He dreamt of her as she had been when Robert and he had first laid eyes on her. Her dark hair was pulled into a heavy braid, and she was in trousers and moccasins as if setting out on a journey. It was easy to remember how in love he had been with her when he saw her like this: a blaze of personality, quick and deft and intelligent. He tried to speak to her, to warn her of the storm, but she could not understand him. She was standing in the snow and the large, falling flakes almost obscured her from his vision. She reached a hand out towards him, but he couldn't see to grasp it because the snow was in his eyes, blinding him.
He had to force his eyes open. His eyelashes were stuck together by frost. His body felt heavy and unresponsive, and he lay for a moment, dumbly wondering what had woken him. The storm had died down, once again leaving the world silent. And then he saw and heard the shadow brushing up against the exterior wall of the tent, the crackle of exhaled moisture crystallizing in the air that meant the temperature outside was still dropping. The animal was whimpering steadily, and it sounded strangely like some guttural language. He thought it was one of the dogs, first, until he saw the size of it, the big ears and the large muzzle silhouetted like a darker shadow across the black wall of the tent right next to him. It was the wolf.
Buck's heart started beating heavily, kick-started by adrenaline pumping into his veins, and this finally woke him from his daze. For a short moment he was paralysed, realising the danger. But then he was up, wrestling out of the sleeping bag - cursing, slapping and rubbing his frozen cheeks with numb hands, driven by some primal instinct which required no conscious thought.
At this, the wolf retreated, and instead of his rifle Buck reached for his clothes and clumsily pulled them on. He unfolded the small portable stove, pushing the small chimney pipe through the narrow flap and a thick layer of snow, and made careful work of pouring in gasoline and wiping away the excess liquid that his trembling hands spilled around the small opening. He couldn't feel the match between his fingers and he had to rely on sight to make sure that his hands were even performing the movements that he meant to.
He didn't let himself rest once the fire was started. He needed to speed up his circulation, and he needed to drink to replenish all the moisture that his skin had given off in the dry cold. It was an act of will to open the tent flap and crawl out into the night. Buck made himself do it, even as painful muscle tremors started wracking his body, buckling him over as he walked. He returned with his old coffee can hard packed with snow, and as soon as he had placed it on the stove to thaw, he carefully pulled off his mittens with his teeth, to begin the unnerving task of checking for frostbite, pressing down on the pad of each finger and sighing with relief each time the whiteness gave way to a pale flush of blood beneath the skin.
Buck knew of many men who had died like this, simply slipping into unconsciousness in their sleep, too exhausted to register the slow numbing of their extremities, until it was too late.
“Damned foolish of me, Robert.” he mumbled, and the name brought back to him the reality that his partner might also be caught out there, somewhere in the wild - that the two people who meant the most to him might be battling the frozen inferno all alone, just like he was.
It made for an uneasy night.
He woke up before dawn, and registered the soft crunch of snow under paws, the sound of hot breath being expelled forcefully into frosty air. The wolf walked around the tent as Buck lay inside listening, and then it took off, setting off into a trot moving eastwards. Buck lay still until he could no longer hear the sound of paws against the newly frozen snow.
Outside the tent he found a small snowshoe hare, neck broken, but still warm. Fat from the autumn feed. Picking it up, Buck saw the gashes from canine incisors like a crimson collar around its neck. It made no sense.
The dogs started digging out from their caves, having caught the scent of fresh meat. They stretched and shook the snow out of their fur, and then they stood with their tails wagging and their red mouths open, expectantly waiting for Buck, who stood for a long time with the small animal in his hand, staring out towards the east.
He skinned the hare and boiled the saddle, the liver and the heart in his coffee can, using the last of his gasoline. He waited impatiently for it to finish, and then drank it down with unrestrained sounds of pleasure. The fatty broth helped immensely to bring both his strength and his spirits back.
He fed the dogs the bones and the innards, even the skin. They ate it up with greed, recognising on bare instinct what Buck had reasoned: that everything and anything needed to be used to ensure survival.
It saved him a little bit of food for both dogs and man on the last leg of the journey. Resolved to travel on the outside of the tree line, and giving up on the easy trail and the shoreline trees that kept him buffeted from the elements, this would help to ensure faster, safer travel.
That morning, the unbroken snow was decked with glittering, glass-like shards of ice. Buck took the time to apply petroleum jelly to the pads of the dogs' feet, to protect them from slicing open their paws. The dogs tolerated this with impatience. They were close enough to the lodge, now, that the dogs who recalled the warm shelter and plentiful food they usually received upon arrival were eager and restless in their harnesses, their excitement communicating to the new dogs that something good lay up ahead on the trail.
Buck set out with the same eagerness, shouting encouragement and praise to the team in a hoarse voice, calling them by name and all the time pushing for greater speed. The temperature had shifted a couple of degrees upwards, and the sky was covered by a blanket of tranquil clouds. Edging closer to the cabin, Buck was filled with a fresh hope that everything would be all right. Caroline would greet him at the cabin, safe and unharmed. The notion filled him with new energy and brought his attention away from aching joints and dizzy spells.
He managed to so utterly convince himself of this scenario, that it was a jolt to finally come over the top of the hill leading into the valley where, some two miles away, Caroline and Robert's lodge lay nestled against the forest edge on the opposite side.
Even from there, Buck could see the tall drifts pushing against the cabin's side, the scattering of fallen tree trunks and heavy branches. And worse, getting out his binoculars he could see the gnarled branch of a large piece of wood, reaching out like a giant arm from the roof on one side, the windows blown out all the way down the front of the cabin, the door open. And no sign of smoke coming from the chimney. No sign of life.
He rushed the team down the hillside, coaxed them up the climb to the cabin. And as he did, a new terror caught his attention: There was another trail, arriving to the lodge from the other side of the small hill. It was a line of fresh paw prints leading up to the door, and around it the snow was spotted with blood.
Buck grabbed the rifle from its sheath, and then he was off the sled - briefly falling to his knees while the dogs ran onwards - and then back up and running, pulling off his mittens to get a proper grip on his weapon, seized for a long moment by unchecked panic.
A couple of yards from the door he managed to collect himself and slow down, to get his breathing under control.
He slid quietly between the half-opened front door, with his finger on the trigger. In the front room the blood had already been absorbed by the dry wood of the floor, but Buck could still see it as darker patches amongst the melted snow. There was a cold draught blowing from the collapsed roof through the half-opened door to the main room. From inside, Buck could hear the scraping and huffing of something moving. He carefully stepped over the floorboard that he knew was creaky and pushed the door all the way open, rifle poised and ready.
At the other end of the room there was a large, grey shape moving between the snow-covered furniture near the window. It only took Buck a split second to recognize the animal.
That same damn wolf.
It had trailed a dark smattering of blood behind it. Its head was down as if following a scent trail, and it was still oblivious to him. Buck hesitated for a second. Twice that wolf had meant the difference between life and death for him, and he was damn sorry to hurt it. But there was no sign of Caroline anywhere, and he was abruptly filled with cold anger at the thought of what might have happened. He took aim.
Buck had already squeezed the trigger. But the shout from behind shook him out of his focus, and his shot went wild - toward the roof, where the bullet splintered through heavy timber.
He swivelled towards the voice, and there was Caroline standing in the door, her face red from the cold and a wild and terrified look in her eyes. She was gasping for breath, but she was unharmed.
Buck lowered the rifle, and she rushed right past him to the grey wolf who greeted her with excited whines, tail wagging low. Buck looked on dumbfounded while Caroline knelt down to embrace the wolf. The animal allowed it readily, licking her chin and yelping softly.
Stunned into stillness, Buck was not even aware of losing his hold on his weapon before it fell with a clatter to the floor.
“What on earth where you thinking? You're insane, the both of you,” Caroline said, roughly wiping tears away from her eyes - half scolding, half sobbing - and Buck couldn't figure out if she was talking to him or to the wolf.
Caroline only spared him a brief glimpse, before taking the wolf's large head between her hands. “Look at the two of you. Thank God you both got here safe, otherwise what would I have done?”
“Caroline, what on earth?”
He was floored by an eerie jerk of emotion as both woman and wolf looked up at him simultaneously. Caroline's arms were slung around the neck of the animal, their faces close together. Buck looked away from her flushed, tear-stained face and met wild eyes regarding him with unexpected – unnatural – intelligence. He recognised that piercing, intensive appraisal. But –
“It can't be,” Buck whispered.
“But it is, Buck. He's always been like this.” Caroline was stroking protectively through the rough fur on the creature's neck.
Buck looked by in wonder as she lifted one of the wolf's legs and revealed the source of the blood: the pad of its paw was cracked open and raw down to the meat of the muscle, bleeding still. The wolf flinched as Caroline gently prodded the abused flesh.
“He's too tired to turn,” she said, getting up from the floor. “He'll need to rest first.”
In a daze, Buck followed Caroline into the back of the cabin, to the small kitchen, which was lukewarm from a recent fire (“I ran out of firewood during the last blow”, she told him), and into the bedroom where stones were piled up around the stove, giving off their stored heat. Caroline had stuffed every window and every crack in the small room with blankets and pieces of clothing, trying to stave off the cold.
The wolf made to curl up on the rug in front of the stove, but Caroline protested, “That's comfortable for you now, but it won't be once you turn, come on.” And she made Buck help her assist the tired animal in climbing up on the bed, his hands deep in the cold fur, supporting heavy, unfamiliar muscle. Once it was done, Caroline turned towards him.
“Now, you better get those boots off and count your toes, Buck.”
She ushered him into the kitchen, where she sat him down by the table, directing him gently in his stupor.
“Tea. You both need tea” she said decisively. She turned her back to busy herself with the little petroleum stove that was set up on the counter.
Buck slowly removed his outer layers and his boots, wriggling his toes experimentally. He accepted the warm drink that was pushed into his hands. But he only stared unseeingly into the grainy liquid, watching tendrils of vapour skate along the surface, as Caroline took the other mug into the adjacent room, closing the door behind her.
The only thing that carried through the heavy door was her voice, low and soothing.
When she stepped out again, she leaned back against the closed door, and in that private moment, Buck could see what she had been trying to hide from him: the tired lines of fear and worry in the corners of her eyes and the set of her mouth. When she lifted her face, it was gone, replaced once again with brisk determination.
“I was out collecting some of the fallen branches when I saw you arriving. I'll go get it now. You should see to your dogs. ”
He went through the mechanics of staking out the dogs, not really noticing their howls of disappointment when they realised that he had nothing left to feed them. When he got back inside, there was a small pile of twigs and branches stacked against the wall, but Caroline was nowhere to be seen. Buck hesitated for a moment, standing in the middle of the kitchen. Then he walked over to the bedroom door and pushed it open.
He saw what he knew he should expect to see, but the sight still shocked him. Caroline had fed the fire and the room was bathed in its soft, yellow light. On the bed, his friend and partner was sleeping, bare-chested, looking grey and tired. His cracked and blistered hands were resting upturned on his abdomen over the blanket.
The mug of tea was standing on the bedside table. Robert moved slightly, shadows shifting over the skin of his eyelids as his eyes moved underneath.
Buck shifted his feet, swallowing back some large and nameless emotion. Although Robert was his dearest friend, both he and Buck had always been fiercely private people. It was almost too intimate to see his friend like this, with all his secrets laid open.
“You ain't gonna treat him any different, Buck. He's the same man you always knew.”
Caroline stepped in beside him, her voice low and barely audible over the crackle of the fire. Their eyes met, and Buck did not know what emotion he projected to Caroline, but it made her anxious defiance fall away, giving way to something softer.
“I've never seen weather like this, not in my entire life. I was scared. For the two of you, and for the baby. And for myself.” She stroked her hand down over her stomach, then reached to grasp Buck's hand, briefly. “Thank you.”
Buck only nodded. He could not find the words.
“Now I need to care for his hands and feet,” Caroline said. Buck saw that she had a basin with hot water, and white linen rags hoisted on her hip.
“There's not much food left, but there is a little bit of jerky and some barley flour. Some canned beans, too. You should both eat.”
Buck went back to the kitchen. Tomorrow, he would take the sled out and find some game. He would chop some of the fallen logs for firewood. If Robert was well enough and the storm was truly over, they could try to repair some of the damage done to the cabin. For now, he set about cooking a meal from the meagre supplies left in the small pantry.
He had a stew simmering on the big stove, a healthy fire burning, when the door opened and Robert and Caroline stepped out. Robert was limping, leaning against Caroline for support. He was half dressed, wrapped in blankets, and his feet and the palms of his hands were heavily bandaged.
Buck got up from his seat by the table and poured a mug of tea, turning his back to them while Caroline helped Robert sit. Then he sat down on the opposite side, pushing the mug wordlessly across the table. Caroline walked past him, touching his shoulder lightly, before going to the stove.
“You were a fool to travel out alone in that kind of weather,” Robert said brusquely, breaking the silence.
Buck drew a sharp breath at the sound of his voice. He glanced quickly at Robert, who was holding the tin mug gingerly between his bandaged hands.
“Well, I couldn't very well know that you'd be coming, too, now could I?” He replied, after a beat.
“Twice you could have died out there,” Robert said.
Behind him the quiet clunk, clunk of Caroline stirring the pot stopped for a second, then started up again.
“And twice you saved me,” Buck replied quietly.
Robert snorted. “I wouldn't be your partner if I didn't make sure to bring you home safe.”
Buck blinked. He swallowed, then nodded slightly.
They sat together in silence for a moment. Then Caroline brought over the stew, hot and good, and the three of them enjoyed the meal together.