by Kit Miller
Fairbanks, Alaska. March 15, 1923.
A motley crew it was. Siku and Suka, the wheel dogs, were brothers, both robust and sturdy with the thick coats typical for Inuit dogs, though Henry was sure all kinds of other dog had contributed to their ancestry. Of the team dogs, Orca and Delta, Henry had similarly little idea what had gone into their breeding. But Rose and Maguyuk, on point, and Gerda, in the lead, were true Siberians. Gerda could even boast of parents that came from Leonhard Seppala’s kennel.
Most of Henry’s team had muddled, almost dirty-looking coats of muted grays, blacks, and browns that blended all together, with Siku’s white fur the only exception. Gerda’s fawn coat color, however, was smooth and reminded Henry a little of the caramel he had loved so much as a child, while the white portions of her coat were crisp and pure as unbroken snow. The contrast between her two colors may as well have been drawn by a ruler, so sharp and clear it was.
With this team, Henry had never once felt unsure on the trail. They would not win him any awards in the races that so many other mushers lived for, much more than they lived for the trail. But then, Henry preferred watching a race to participating in it. The one time he had entered had been a disaster. His sled had ended up so damaged, he’d had to spend twice the amount of the entry fee to fix it up again. No thanks.
Which only heightened his admiration of those mushers who actually won. He knew what it took to finish those races, much less finish first. Those mushers were truly Alaska’s finest.
“Nome,” the porter called out. “Mail for Nome.”
“Here! That’s me! Come on, pups.” Henry tugged at Gerda’s harness and the team obediently trotted after him. The sled runners grated harshly on the gravel. “Is there a package from Juneau, too?” Henry asked the porter.
“Dunno,” the porter replied, setting a large sack down in the basket of Henry’s sled. He turned around and picked up a crate. “But if there is, it’s in here.”
“Thank you.” Henry took the crate from him. He put it in the basket for now and moved aside so the other people waiting on the platform could pick up their cargo. He’d have to open the crate anyway to properly pack the sled.
It took him half an hour of playing sled-jigsaw — slotting packages next to each other, rotating them to see how they fit, almost tearing his hair out over one package that was large and bulky in all the wrong places — until it finally fell in his hands: a small package from Juneau, wrapped in brown paper and tied twice over with string that was beginning to frost over. Overdue by months. The reason Henry had come all the way to Fairbanks himself. He wedged it tightly between his snowshoes and his food rations, tying it down with as many lines as he could spare.
Not that he was careless with the rest of the mail. He tugged, jiggled, and shoved at it until he was sure it was all tight and secure, then he slung the sealskin cover over it and tied that down, too.
Eyeing the gray, low sky, Henry contemplated staying in Fairbanks another night. But when he glanced at his team, Gerda was looking back at him, her ice blue eyes steely. If she had eyebrows, Henry was sure she would raise one in skepticism.
He laughed. “Yeah, you’re right, girl. The trail calls!” He placed his feet on the runners, gripped the handrail, and shouted, “Hike!”
Like a shot from a pistol, the dogs sprang forward and Henry sped out of Fairbanks towards Nome.
Heinrich Schuster had, like so many people, come to Nome in 1900, when the cry of gold rang all around the world. A lad of seventeen from Frankfurt with no prospect of a decent life, Heinrich had packed his bags and gone North.
He’d found no gold at all. But he’d found he had a knack for dogs. Soon, Heinrich Schuster was calling himself Henry Shuster and was one of the mushers connecting little isolated Nome with the rest of Alaska, and the rest of the world.
Many who had been as unlucky in finding gold as Henry had left again, crawling home with their tails between their legs. Even of those who stayed, not a few left Nome every winter. They saw Alaska as a wasteland, a desert and cruel place. But Henry saw freedom and beauty and calm. He had fallen in love with the wide open sky, the looming, imposing mountains, the spruces older than memory, the white expanse of a snow field. And Henry had pledged his heart to Alaska.
For a long while, the team practically flew along the trail. The ground was smooth and even, well-traveled but not worn. Henry just knew it wouldn’t last forever. Nothing good on the trail lasted forever. Even when Henry reached Tolovana without incident, he knew that he should not be complacent.
His forebodings confirmed themselves on the next day. Barely a mile out of Tolovana, the trail turned ragged and rugged. Someone must have driven a damn horse cart over it again. Horses’ hooves wreaked havoc on dog trails, cutting deep furrows and gouges into the ground that the dogs stumbled over, or worse, fell into. Henry felt every single bump and pit until his legs turned to jelly. “Easy,” Henry called. Gerda slowed to a reluctant trot. It didn’t do much good. In fact, it was even worse, because the reduced speed meant the sled caught on the steepest ridges.
Henry looked over to his left. The river looked smooth enough. “What do you think, pups? Shall we risk the river?”
Gerda twitched her ear towards him but otherwise kept on going.
“Well, if you say so, girl. Haw!”
At once, the team swung left and went onto the river.
It wasn’t much safer here than on the trail. But then again, no dog musher was ever truly safe. The trick was in assessing which risks were worth taking and which to avoid. Right now, with the weather all right and visibility good, Henry thought he could risk the river, at least for a while. The going was good, too; the ice was smooth enough, a few bumps here and there notwithstanding. Orca, clumsy even on the most forgiving ground, slipped and stumbled a couple of times, but was always back on her paws before Henry could even open his mouth to give the command to slow, and the team once more rushed along in perfect rhythm.
This was how it went on for most of the morning. Around noon, Henry stopped to wolf down some of the dried salmon he’d brought, then he continued. The dogs wouldn’t need to eat until later today.
But some time later, Gerda began behaving oddly. She kept slowing to a trot and Henry had to keep telling her to run. Eventually, though, she slowed and slowed heedless of Henry’s commands. Finally, she stopped altogether.
But she did not move. Siku and Suka tugged at their harnesses, straining to obey Henry’s command, but the rest of the team rather listened to their lead. Rose yawned nervously. Orca turned around to look at Henry with an expression that he’d call apologetic on a human.
“Are you hurt, girl?” Henry got off the sled and immediately knew what was wrong. The ice flexed underfoot. It almost bounced. This was but a thin, fragile sheet and could break at any moment. And if the ice broke —
Henry didn’t bother getting back on the sled. “Gee, Gerda, gee!” She sprang immediately into action and veered right and off the river back onto the safety of the trail.
Henry was right behind them. He had barely reached the trail and hopped onto the runners when an ear-slitting hiss, louder than that of a steam locomotive, made him flinch and spin around. Where he had stood just a few moments ago, the pent-up water beneath the ice erupted into a geyser nearly three feet high. Some of the spray fell on Henry’s face. He wiped it off stupidly. He should have known better than to not listen to Gerda. If he had taken the brunt of that geyser, he wasn’t sure he could have dried himself and the dogs quickly enough before freezing to death.
Delta began barking at the geyser, and soon the team joined in. A cacophony of howling and baying filled the air and Henry shouted himself hoarse before they fell silent again. “Right, have you got that out of your system?” he barked.
“Good. We still have a ways to go to Tenana. So on with it! Hike!”
Conor had asked Henry once how on earth he didn’t lose his marbles out on the trail. Mushers covered vast distances and spent a lot of time in no company but their dogs. Alaska could get monotonous; even Henry, love-struck with the country as he was, admitted to this.
The trick was to not think of the final destination. That would only remind a musher how far he still had to go, and drench him in despair. Henry kept his eyes no farther than the next bend in the trail. He never thought about how many miles he had still left to go, or how late it was getting. He just kept his eyes on the trail a few yards in front of Gerda, watching for any hazards that could befall him and his dogs, and let his mind wander. He thought of the book he was reading, and the last salmon run, and how he needed to wax the sled runners when he got a chance to, and wondered what his other dogs, left behind at home in their kennel, were up to.
Though most of the time, he thought of Atiqtalaaq. Or of Conor.
It happened in the hills between Unalakleet and Shaktoolik. The ascent had been uncomplicated enough, if hard work. The dogs strained until their harnesses creaked, and Henry, walking behind the sled, pushed with all his strength. By the time they reached the summit, Henry was spent. He made a controlled collapse next to his sled. Gerda even left her post and came over to check, dragging all the other dogs behind her.
“I’m okay, girl,” Henry gasped. Damn it, but he’d worked up a real sweat. If he wasn’t careful, he’d get hypothermic. The dogs, too, were panting. It was one of life’s cruel ironies that a husky could overheat in temperatures well below zero.
Henry rummaged in his pockets for the dried salmon he’d had the forethought to stow there. He chewed on one bit while gazing into nothing. He knew that Norton Sound was to the East, but visibility was too poor to see it. He surreptitiously let Gerda have a bit of salmon, too. “But don’t tell the others,” he said, ruffling the thick fur around her throat. “Or they’ll get real jealous.”
When he finished the third bit of salmon, he stood and stretched. He was only halfway to Shaktoolik, and he wanted to get there by nightfall. It had been two weeks since he’d set out from Fairbanks, and a month and change since he’d left Nome. Some mushers, but only the daring-verging-on-reckless ones like Leonhard Seppala, regularly crossed Norton Sound between Shaktoolik and Isaac’s Point, saving an entire day of their journeys. But Henry had never even attempted it. He’d rather go around and arrive a day or two later than risk never arriving at all.
He stepped on the runners. “Go carefully, now, pups,” he called. “This here hill is steep and no mistake.” He already had his foot on the brake. “Hike up easy now!”
The team jumped into action. Henry kept his eyes glued on the gangline. If it slacked even the least bit, he put his foot down on the brake. It was a jerky, frustrating endeavor. Neither the dogs nor Henry were enjoying themselves much, especially not Siku and Suka, who, as the dogs closest to the sled, bore most of the brunt of the brake.
One moment of inattention was all it took. The clouds split for a second, revealing the Sound. Henry’s eye was involuntarily drawn to the ice sparkling in the sun, just as the team leaned into a curve. The sled veered left and Henry went right, tumbling into the snow. He got his bearings just in time to see the sled slide off the trail and towards the precipice, dragging the dogs with it. The dogs yelped and tried in vain to pull the sled back on the trail, but they were pulled ever closer to the sheer, nauseating drop.
“Shit, shit, shit!” Henry frantically lunged for the sled, catching the rear of the right runner. With his free hand, he got the snow hook free and slammed it into the ground. It held, but only just, the sled teetering over the edge. Suka, the left wheel dog, was scrabbling to keep his purchase. One of his hind paws slipped off the trail but he managed to get it back on safe ground.
For a few seconds, all was still except for Henry’s harsh breathing and the creak of the runners. His arms strained between the sled runner and the snow hook. Not even the dogs barked. Siku whimpered and looked anxiously over his shoulders.
“It’s okay, boys,” Henry gasped. “I’ve got you. It’s okay.” But the sled runner was slipping, almost imperceptibly but mercilessly, from Henry’s caribou skin mitten, and the mitten from Henry’s sweaty hand. He craned his neck. At the other end of the line, Gerda stood with her ears pricked and her tongue lolling. The gangline was slack, and the dogs between her and Siku and Suka stood huddled together in a confused mess.
Henry took a ragged breath. He felt panic bubble in his throat and he fought hard to keep it down. He almost panicked over panicking. Losing his calm was a great way for a musher to lose his life. He took a deep breath and held it for a moment. One step after the other. He breathed out. With new resolve, he shouted, “Gerda, girl, line out! Line out!”
She obeyed immediately, springing forwards. The gangline went taut, and each dog resumed its position, safe for poor Suka, for whom it was all he could do not to slip off the edge. There were no tangles or knots in the line, at least not that Henry could see from his awkward vantage point.
He kept breathing in and slowly out. All right. All right, he could do this. “Okay, pups, well done! Hike up now, hike! Hike up!”
Gerda laid into her harness with a bark. Rose and Maguyuk followed suit, and soon, the entire team was pulling. Henry hauled with them, shuffling backwards and trying mostly in vain to find any sort of foothold. For the first time in his life, he cursed a smooth trail.
Slowly, the sled came away from the precipice, and then, with a sudden ease, it was back on steady ground. It slipped from Henry’s grasp, and the dogs ran off with it, pulling the snow hook free, before Henry collected enough breath in his lungs to shout at them to stop.
Gerda came to a reluctant halt, snapping at Rose when she couldn’t stop quickly enough and came a little too close to her. Rose drew back to her position with a look Henry would call apologetic.
“Are you okay, pups?” Henry walked up and down the line to make sure. And to bring the feeling back into his wobbly, numb legs. “Suka, boy, you okay?” Suka panted at him. Henry hunkered down in front of him and checked his paws. Two nails on his left hind paw were torn and bleeding. “Ouch. Don’t worry, boy, I’ll fix you up in no time.”
Henry stumbled over to the sled, his legs still weak, and removed the cover. A few lines had got loose, but the cover had stayed firmly in place, and he didn’t think he had lost anything. Still, he checked. His rations and equipment were still there, as were the mail sacks. He couldn’t see the package from Juneau at first, but he found it when he pushed aside some of the rabbit blankets. There it was, safe as houses.
Henry breathed out and sagged against the handrail. All was well.
He grabbed some bandages and wrapped up Suka’s hind paw. It wasn’t ideal, but hopefully it would do until they reached level ground and Henry could make camp for the night. He wouldn’t reach Shaktoolik today, after all.
Delta let out a howl, and the rest of the team immediately joined in. Henry rolled his eyes while he strapped the cargo down. He pulled his mitts on tighter and hopped onto the sled. “Hike!”
The weather was worrying him. Ever since he’d left Isaac’s Point, the clouds had drawn closer and the wind had gotten stronger. It wasn’t snowing, not yet. But it would soon. Henry knew it in his bones.
Henry bade his dogs go faster and faster. But they just couldn’t outrun the storm. It came upon them almost in an instance. First, Henry could see the trail in front of Gerda, then, he could barely make out the sled’s brushbow. The blizzard pelted at him, the wind finding every crevice of his clothes and nesting in them, depositing tiny crystals of pure, distilled cold.
Henry couldn’t see through the dense, furious mass of snow and ice. He couldn’t hear above the howl and rage of the wind. He could hardly breathe, the cold hammering his lungs. The Iñupiat said that the wind was a malevolent spirit. Henry believed them with all his heart. This storm was evil, more evil than any man Henry had ever known, and he’d known his fair share of evil men. He knew a musher once who’d thrown down the towel after being caught in one blizzard too many. “I ain’t never gonna stay in a place where the very air don’t want to be breathed,” he’d said before leaving for Juneau and from there, Seattle.
Henry squinted, for all the good it did him. He was in a blinding, numbing, deafening void. He had no idea where he was. Was he even still moving? Only a glance down between the runners and seeing the ground rush by confirmed it. He was just glad he’d covered the dogs’ crotches, the only spot where they had little or no fur, with the rabbit skin blankets before he left Isaac’s Point. All he could do now was cling onto the handrail, pull his hood as deep over his face as it would go, and trust that Gerda could find the trail by herself.
He was fairly certain he passed out for a bit. That, or the raging wind and bitter cold had numbed his brain into forgetting everything right away. Was there a difference? Either way, when he came to, and the blizzard was still howling, and the ground beneath him was still, and something was tugging at the sled, he startled up, falling backwards off the sled.
“For God’s sake, Henry, get yourself inside!”
Stupidly, Henry looked up. A figure, in a caribou parka much like Henry’s, came into view. The figure’s face was obscured by their hood.
“Get inside,” the figure repeated, having to shout over the blizzard. “I’ll handle your dogs.”
Still numb and slow, Henry got to his feet. He didn’t even have the strength to protest and insist on taking care of his dogs himself. He just staggered towards the faint yellow glow of the roadhouse lamp. He shoved against the door and stumbled inside. He recognised the roadhouse immediately. It had no name, but among the mushers, it was referred to as “the Irish house,” owing to the geographical origins of its proprietor.
Henry stripped off his outer layer — parka, mittens, pants, and boots. Underneath, he had on two sweaters, two pairs of socks, and a pair of leggings made from the hide of a caribou calf with the fur facing inwards.
He hunkered down by the hearth, a pit filled with glowing embers in the middle of the small and only room. A pot hung over the pit from the rafters, perpetual stew bubbling away inside. To Henry’s left, a wonky shelf bent under the weight of dishes and cutlery, books, and tools. On the other side of the hearth, as far away from the door while still being as close to the hearth as possible, a bedroll was laid out, and by the looks of it, had just been in use. A book lay by the pillow, a feather sticking out of it at over the half-way mark. Henry frowned, absently staring into the glowing embers. Was it night-time? Had he really spent that much time in the blizzard? Or had Conor just done what everyone did during a blizzard, which was to lie down and sleep it away?
The creak of hinges made him look up. Conor emerged from a small side door, which led to the lean-to for the sled and the dogs. He had more stubble than Henry had ever seen on him. He shaved religiously. He said he didn’t like the feeling of a beard. Just more indication that it was not exactly a social hour.
“Did we wake you?” Henry asked.
“Yes,” Conor replied. From anyone else, it would sound like an accusation. From him, it was a simple statement of fact. He, too, took his parka, boots, and mittens off, but Henry saw that instead of heavy, baggy pants, he only had his leggings on. He must have dressed in a hurry and decided leggings were good enough for the short time he’d be outside.
Conor plucked two wooden bowls and spoons from the shelf and settled down by the hearth. He ladled one bowl almost to overflowing and handed it to Henry. “Slowly,” he said, his Irish lilt evident in even the one word.
Henry didn’t need to be told. For a bit, he just held the hot bowl in his hands, warming up his fingers. He hadn’t got any frostbite on them, thank Christ. He was reluctant to take his socks off, but he’d have to eventually, to see if his toes had fared as well. “How are my dogs?” he asked. He’d check on them as soon as he got the feeling back in his extremities.
“They’re well,” Conor replied while filling his own bowl. “But one of the wheels limps. The brown one.”
“Suka.” Henry sighed. “He ripped two nails out a few days back, but he seemed well enough after a bit of rest in Shaktoolik.” He listlessly stirred his stew. “I hope it’s nothing permanent.”
“Well,” said Conor and began to eat, “he’ll get plenty more rest here. That blizzard doesn’t look like it’ll tire itself out in a few hours.”
Henry just nodded and spooned some stew into his mouth. He’d known that. And he was grateful that Gerda had brought him to the Irish house, even though it was a little ways off the established trail. Of all the roadhouses to be stuck at for days, Conor’s was by far Henry’s first choice.
Henry and Conor ate in silence while the storm rattled on the rafters. When Henry was done, he set his bowl aside and went to check on his dogs.
Most were asleep. Rose and Delta lay snuggled up together. Orca was on her back and snoring gently. Gerda, however, was waiting by the sled. She looked up briefly when Henry ruffled her ears, then went back to staring at the door.
Henry gave each dog a thorough once-over. Suka’s paw was not bleeding, but it evidently hurt him, as he tugged it free of Henry’s grip and even snapped at him. Just a warning, but still. Henry checked the sled, too, and everything there seemed fine. The harnesses, Conor had hung up neatly on the pegs he’d put up for that very purpose.
Having seen for himself that his dogs were all right, Henry grabbed his bedroll and his cup from the sled. Not that he didn’t trust Conor, but no musher worth his salt relied only on someone else’s word when it came to his dogs.
He stopped when he passed Gerda. He hunkered down and hugged her tight. “Thank you for taking us here,” he murmured into her fur. “I’d be dead without you.” He heard her tail thump down on the straw floor.
Back in the house, Henry took his socks off to inspect his toes. Nine toes, having lost one already in 1906. And all nine pink and whole. Henry pulled his socks back on and sat down by Conor’s side.
Conor had already filled him another bowl. “I was worried.” Poking at the coals, he didn’t look at Henry. He rarely looked at people directly. “You promised you’d stop by when you came through here last month.”
“Well, I’m here now, aren’t I?” Henry chewed on an unidentifiable lump in his stew. Was that a bit of carrot? Good God, that must be half a year old or more.
“Yes, but you’re late,” Conor insisted. “You said you’d be here four days ago.”
Henry rolled his eyes and drank some broth. “You know very well all of the things that can delay a musher. And if I remember correctly, I said ‘approximately’.”
Conor didn’t look convinced, but then, his expressions were often so understated as to be inscrutable if not invisible. He just fished out a bit of stew directly from the pot, and popped it right into his mouth. “Why did you go all the way to Fairbanks?”
“I ordered something for Atiqtalaaq from Juneau all the way back in November, for Christmas, but it didn’t arrive ’til now. I wanted to make sure she got it.”
“Did you cross the Sound?” Conor finally looked in Henry’s direction, though not directly at Henry’s face.
“Who do you think I am, Leonhard Seppala?” When Conor frowned in hesitant confusion, Henry clarified, “No, I went around.”
Conor’s face cleared and he nodded. “Sorry, for a moment I wasn’t sure what you meant.”
“It’s all right.”
“Do you want whiskey?”
Conor didn’t bother standing up. Instead, he scooted a bit to the side, then a bit more, then leaned over and pulled open a trap door. He fished around in it and produced an unlabeled bottle with liquid in it the color of clear honey. Henry’s mouth watered.
Conor filled first Henry’s beat-up tin cup, then his own, less beat-up tin cup. They clanged the cups together and drank in unison.
Henry hissed. “Damn good. Where’d you get it?”
“Someone I know.” Henry couldn’t tell if Conor was being deliberately evasive or genuinely thought that was an adequate answer. Either way, Henry figured it was best to just leave it.
There was a sort of philosophical loneliness to Conor. Henry was unbothered by his tendency towards silence and his still, serene face. In fact, he found it endearing. And calming. He and Conor, though with hundreds of miles between them, understood one another like very few people did.
Henry theorized it was because they knew, intimately and painfully, where the other came from. Nobody in Alaska had survived influenza unscathed.
Conor had told him once, in a night very much like this one, how he and his sister and her son had come to Alaska. Like everyone else, they’d followed the call for gold, the promise of a better life that an impoverished family in Dublin could never even dream of. And like everyone who had failed at finding gold but had decided to stay anyway, Conor had found something ten times more valuable.
“In Dublin, it’s loud,” he’d told Henry. He’d been rocking gently back and forth, running his hands over the furs in his lap. “And it’s crowded and it stinks. Here, I felt like… with all of the noises and smells of Dublin gone, I felt like my whole life, I’d been deaf to my own mind and now, I could finally hear my own thoughts.” He’d smiled a tiny smile. “And nobody gives me grief when I’d rather stay here in my cabin and read than go out and socialize. In fact, they thank me for it.”
“Us mushers couldn’t do what we do if we didn’t have the roadhouses to stop at,” Henry had replied.
Conor had smiled at him, a small, quiet smile. But for him, that was as good as a wide, toothy grin. It had done all sorts of queer things to Henry’s insides.
But then Conor had gone on to relay, distantly and almost coldly, how he’d lost his sister to influenza. He himself and his nephew had contracted it, as well, but survived. The nephew had left Alaska three years ago and was now gallivanting around California.
For a while, the two men had been silent. And then, very quietly, Henry had told Conor of the death of his wife Uvlunuaq and their infant son. He’d talked even while tears had rolled down his face. And Conor had silently shuffled closer and put his arm around him.
That night, they had kissed for the first time.
And now, years later though Henry couldn’t remember exactly how many, he wondered if Conor was thinking of the same thing. He looked over at him, but Conor was staring at the hearth, rocking gently, and rolling the cup between his palms. The glimmer of the embers twitched across his face, casting sharp, black shadows and reducing his weather-worn face to nothing but crinkles. In this light, he looked much older than the forty-odd years he was.
Henry took another swig of whiskey. He didn’t look away.
After a while, Conor raised his head, and their eyes met. Conor smiled a small, careful smile. He stopped fiddling with the cup and set it aside. “Are you finished with that?” he asked, gesturing to Henry’s.
Henry drained it. “I am now.”
Conor came closer, sitting in front of Henry, facing him. He put his hand on Henry’s face. He gazed as intently at Henry’s lips as if he had never seen them before. His kiss was soft and questioning, and Henry’s response an eager affirmation. He slid his hand into Conor’s hair. Conor pushed against it like a cat, molding Henry’s palm to the shape of his skull.
Something moved by Henry’s waist, and he almost flinched, thinking it might be a rat or mouse trying to burrow under his sweater for warmth, before he realized it was Conor trying to get the drawstring of his leggings open. Not moving his mouth away from Conor’s, he pulled at the knot in just the right way and pushed the leggings down. It was a bit of a struggle, but finally, Conor could lean down and put his lips on Henry’s cock.
Henry sighed. He was warm, he was full, his dogs were safe, he was safe. And a man he liked very much indeed was moving his mouth up and down Henry’s slowly hardening cock. Right now, nothing else had to matter, and Henry could relax.
He put one hand back on Conor’s head, and Conor gave a hum of contentment and a flick of his tongue that sent a pulse of pleasure all the way to the roots of Henry’s hair. Henry had always wondered where a man as shy and withdrawn as Conor learned to use his mouth with such aptitude.
By the time Henry was fully hard and steadily approaching release, Henry stopped Conor with a brief and gentle push to his shoulder. Conor looked up, spittle and slick smeared all around his lips. His eyes were large, the pupils blown wide. “What is it?”
Henry put his hands on either side of his face and drew him upwards so he could kiss him. “I want to touch you, too.” He reached for Conor’s leggings and Conor helped him undo the string.
Conor made a noise very close to a whimper when Henry, one hand on his buttocks, pulled him so close Conor was practically in Henry’s lap. Conor jerked his hips, his cock bumping against Henry’s, electrifying. Henry pressed his nose into the side of Conor’s neck. He smelled of straw and leather and soot. His woolen sweater was itchy on Henry’s cheek. Conor reached down and enclosed both of their lengths with his hand, his touch rough-skinned but feather-light.
Henry added his own hand. Conor was not as hard yet as Henry, and still dry and a little rough to the touch. Henry gave his palm a few quick licks and gathered the moisture beading on the tip of his own penis. Conor certainly appreciated the added slick; he sighed and lapped at Henry’s throat.
Their fingers interlinked, Conor and Henry moved as one, teasing and nudging and urging pleasure out of each other. Neither of them spoke, but Conor kept making noises, some deliberate like hums, others involuntary. Those, Henry liked best, and he did whatever he could think of to elicit another moan, another sigh, another gasp from Conor.
Henry’s arousal, already stoked, burned hotter and hotter until, when Conor squeezed just a little more firmly than he’d done before, it flashed bright and searing. Henry trembled in Conor’s embrace while his cock pulsed semen all over their hands. “There you go,” Conor murmured, clearly pleased with himself. He tugged at Henry’s neck and kissed him while Henry was still breathless.
“You’re just wonderful,” Henry murmured against Conor’s mouth. He had not let go of Conor, and now he sped up. He wanted to make Conor writhe, drunk with pleasure, and hear him moan and gasp as he came. “Just let me take care of you.” He gently pushed Conor’s hand away and ran his palm down Conor’s cock languidly.
His reward was Conor sighing and going limp like a ragdoll in his embrace.
Henry pressed a kiss to the side of his face. “Good?” He crooked his thumb around Conor’s root.
“Ah!” Conor’s hips jerked. “You — need to — ask?”
The sound Conor made when he came was almost a mewl. He fisted his hands in Henry’s sweater and hugged him tight enough to hurt a little.
They stayed like that for a while, each propped up by the other, and caught their breaths. Maybe Henry even dozed off a little, he wasn’t sure. His thoughts were fuzzy and insubstantial like summer clouds.
His awareness resharpened when Conor moved, making a sound of disgust at the drying emissions on their hands and genitals. He stood, wobbling a little, and fetched a bucket of water and a rag. Henry reached for the rag, but Conor swatted his hand away and cleaned everything off himself. He was meticulous like that.
Instead, Henry rolled out his bedroll next to Conor’s and went to check on his dogs one last time. When he came back, Conor had already snuggled back into his own bedroll and was reading. Henry lay down and murmured a “good night,” even though it could be high noon for all he knew.
“Good night,” Conor murmured, his eyes glued to the pages of his book.
Henry wormed one arm out of his bedroll and laid it over Conor’s back. Conor hummed, and Henry fell asleep.
The storm lasted days. Henry waxed the sled runners and Conor chopped vegetables for the stew. They ate and drank together. They played dice and card games. They read. They talked. They made love. They slept a great deal, too.
Every morning and evening, as much as that meant anything at the moment, Henry checked on his dogs. Gerda kept herself close to the kennel door, and Henry could see the scratch marks on the bottom panel. Whenever he came in, she would stick close to him, pressing against his legs and staring up at him, her ice blue eyes full of hope and expectation. She was itching to go back on the trail as much as Henry was.
The other dogs just slept, barely stirring even when Henry rattled the feed bucket. Maguyuk, the lazy bum, didn’t even get up when Henry dangled a piece of dried salmon over his snout. Only when Henry dropped it right in front of his nose did he lap it up and chewed contemplatively.
Henry hunkered down next to him, just to make sure he wasn’t ill. But no, his paws were sound, his coat smooth, and his eyes, though half-lidded with sleep, were clear. If there was anything wrong with him, it was nothing Henry could discern.
But there were more gray hairs around Maguyuk’s muzzle than Henry thought there were last time he’d checked. He was almost ten, after all.
“You’re getting old, aren’t you.” Henry ruffled his ears, and Maguyuk wagged his tail, thump-thump-thumping it on the straw. “Looks like this will be your last run, old friend.”
Maguyuk sighed and closed his eyes, his tail still thumping on the floor.
The next day, the blizzard finally cleared. Conor helped Henry push the sled out of the lean-to, and laid out the gangline and harnesses with focused meticulosity while Henry fetched the dogs. Harnessing was always an ordeal. Especially so when the dogs had been penned up for days. They howled and bayed from the moment Henry lifted the first harness off the peg. They jumped and twirled in excitement. Each was vying to be the next to be taken by the collar and pulled to the sled.
Rose was the worst. She slipped from Henry’s grip and led him and Conor on a merry chase around the roadhouse that she probably thought was great fun. She made it three times around the house before Conor managed to grab onto her collar and dragged her to the sled. Rose was still wriggling and positively dancing when Henry put the harness on her and he had to clamp his knees around her shoulders lest she dash off again.
Even Maguyuk and Gerda were not immune to the charged atmosphere. Gerda was hopping from one paw to the other so much that Henry harnessed her wrong twice. Even with Conor’s help, it took him twice as long to harness the team than it usually did. When he was done, Henry drove the snow hooks well and deep into the ground. The dogs were so keyed up, he wouldn’t put it past them to just run off, caring not a jot whether or not Henry was standing on the runners.
He turned to face Conor, who was waiting a few paces away. “So,” said Henry, pulling his mittens tighter. “I’m off again.”
Conor nodded, his eyes on a pine behind Henry. “Give Atiqtalaaq my love.”
“I will.” He waited. “Well.” He half turned, but Conor spoke again.
“Henry,” said Conor, then paused. He frowned at a spot somewhere on Henry’s face.
Conor finally looked up, and actually met Henry’s eyes. “Just… be careful?”
Henry smiled. “I will.” He took Conor’s hand and pulled lightly, and when Conor leaned in, he kissed him. His heart fluttered with joy. “I’m coming back,” Henry said. “I don’t know when. I can’t even tell you I’ll be back soon. But I’ll be back, I promise.”
Conor smiled with just one side of his mouth. “How do you know I’m not glad to see the back of you?” He gave Henry another kiss, then took a step back. “Away you go, now.”
Henry wanted so badly to kiss him again, but he made himself pull the hooks free and step onto the sled. “Thank you for everything.”
Conor just nodded.
Henry turned towards the trail. “Hike!”
The weather was good; it was that kind of crisp, ice cold on a cloudless day when every color seemed to pop, every noise sounded crystalline. The glare of the snow was bright enough that Henry wore his snow goggles. Uvlunuaq had made them for him from driftwood. For weeks, she’d carved at them, until they fit the shape of Henry’s face like a second skin. She’d engraved them with a series of dogs, four on the top running to the right, and another four on the bottom, heading to the left. One of the last gifts from her, Henry cherished them dearly. He’d replaced the straps recently, just before he’d set out for Fairbanks.
Up and down he went, breaking trail by stomping down the fresh, powdery snow that a dog disappeared up to the neck into, until it was hard and compact and the sled could glide over it. Some stretches, he had to cover three times before they were serviceable. At first, he’d not minded; in fact, he’d enjoyed the exercise after days being stuck indoors. But several miles in, it had lost all appeal. The dogs didn’t have any fun, either. They wanted to run, to run, to run, not to wait for Henry to call them and then trot along a dozen yards or so of good trail and then wait again.
Some parts of the trail were better than others, owing to intricate combinations of topography and geology and temperature and humidity. There were even a few miles that Henry could step on the sled and let his dogs run. And when he did have to get off and break trail yet again, Henry knew that all along the trail were people who did just what he was doing to ensure the trail was restored to its full use. The trails were the pulsing veins and arteries of Alaska. Everyone did their best to keep them in top form.
And indeed, halfway to Golovin, the trail suddenly got much better. Henry could still make out the footprints of the people who’d broken the snow in.
“Oh, thank goodness for that,” Henry said. He stepped onto the sled and Gerda took off before he could even take a breath to shout “Hike!” An extremely rare show of disobedience, but Henry let it go. He would probably have done the same if he were her. He turned his face into the wind. A bit of the snow goggles’ strip flapped against his face, and he imagined it was Uvlunuaq’s spirit urging him home to their daughter.
Nome, Alaska. April 21.
More than a month after he received the mail in Fairbanks, Henry deposited it at the Nome post office, minus all the mail he’d handed out on his stops on the trail, of course.
Now he only had one last package to deliver. He got back on his sled and left Nome again, heading a mile or so North to the Iñupiat settlement where he lived. He passed several people and dogs. The people waved in greeting, the dogs howled and barked and tugged on their chains. But Gerda seemed just as impatient to finish this last, smallest leg of their journey as Henry was. Not once did her eyes stray from the path.
Finally, Henry’s sled came to a stop in front of his house. He was home.
He stepped off the sled and greeted several of his friends who’d come to bid him welcome. They asked about conditions on his trail and he gave as detailed a report as he could. Almost all of the men in this community were mushers themselves. While a complete round-trip like the one Henry had just undertaken was rare, information was a crucial tool for a musher’s survival and he was always willing to pass it on.
Henry was just asking one of Uvlunuaq’s cousins, who knew more about the illnesses and injuries of dogs than anyone, to have a look at Suka’s paw, when Henry’s eight-year-old daughter Atiqtalaaq came running out of the house. “Aapa! You’re back!”
Henry swept her up in his arms and whirled her around. “Hello, my darling,” he said in Iñupiaq. “How are you? Were you a good girl while I was away?”
“I was,” she replied proudly. “I helped Grandmother make you new mittens.”
“Did you? That’s so good of you. Now Aapa’s hands won’t ever be cold again.” Henry rested his forehead against Atiqtalaaq’s and let himself just be for a moment.
Behind him, he heard the dogs’ harnesses jingle as they shifted impatiently. Delta gave one bark that clearly said ‘get on with it!’
With a sigh, Henry set Atiqtalaaq back on the ground. He ruffled her hair. She grinned a gap-toothed grin at him. “You’re getting big,” he said in English, unable to hide the wistfulness in his voice. “Come. Help me take care of the dogs.” Hand in hand with his daughter, he led the team to their kennel.
Henry would swear up and down that Gerda understood Atiqtalaaq was a child. Normally gruff and irritable when being unharnessed, she stood perfectly and patiently still as Atiqtalaaq undid her harness with clumsy fingers, even when Atiqtalaaq pinched her on accident. If Henry were that rough with her, she’d bite off his fingers.
Freed from her harness, Gerda shook herself, let Atiqtalaaq scratch her ears, and trotted away to her teammates. She lay down with a sigh and a huff between Rose and Orca.
Atiqtalaaq’s grandmother — Uvlunuaq’s mother — was waiting in the house. She had prepared a good, hearty dinner and was tending to the fire. She and Henry shared an embrace and a brief chat in Iñupiaq.
“Will you not stay for dinner?” Henry asked deferentially.
But she shook her head and worked one hand into a mitten. “I still have my other grandchildren to take care of.” Atiqtalaaq’s cousins, twins aged ten, had lost both their parents in 1919. Now, they lived with the old woman.
Henry squeezed her shoulder. “Thank you for everything.”
“You’re family,” she replied simply. She gave Atiqtalaaq a hug, then left.
Atiqtalaaq and Henry ate and Henry, sometimes in English, sometimes in Iñupiaq, told her all about his trip. He did not downplay any of the dangers he’d faced. Atiqtalaaq kept saying she wanted to be a musher just like her Aapa, and while he did not mean to deter her, he wanted her to be fully aware of all the risks and hazards that could befall her. All the while, Atiqtalaaq’s gaze kept drifting to the package from Juneau that Henry had laid down on the floor beside him. But she was patient.
Once they finished their dinner, Henry gave her the package. “Open it.”
Atiqtalaaq did, ripping the paper away with youthful abandon. Once she realized what lay before her, she squealed in delight. “A teddy bear!” She snatched the toy up and hugged him tight to her chest. “A teddy polar bear!”
“Turn him upside-down,” Henry said in Iñupiaq.
She gave him an odd look, but did as he asked. She gasped when the teddy gave a low, moo-like growl. “He speaks,” she said. Almost whispered. She set the bear down carefully and flung her arms around Henry’s neck. “Thank you, Aapa!”
Henry wrapped her tight in his arms.
He loved the trail. He loved the wilderness. He loved his dogs. He was pretty sure he loved Conor, too.
But he loved nothing more than his daughter.