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Until Love Do Us Part
Until Love Do Us Part
The blinding downfall of snow couldn’t obscure the tall pines that towered above the man who trudged through the thick stand of trees. Drifts of snow five feet high piled against the trunks, and large clumps burdened the boughs, threatening with every gust of chilling wind to fall with a dull thud to the snow below.
With eyes tearing up against the biting wind, the man lowered his head and focused his gaze on the thick snow beneath his snow-shoes. Now and again he’d glance up, to avoid the large, deep drifts. Aside from the howling wind, the only sound was the crunching of the snow beneath him.
He lifted his gaze and twisted around to look behind him. There was nothing there. He whistled through chapped lips and chattering teeth. Then all of a sudden, from behind a few pines, a big black dog came leaping through the snow, bounding through the drifts. The man resumed walking, reassured that his companion was still local.
The furry black animal stopped a moment, to playfully bury his snout into a drift. Satisfied that his search turned up nothing unusual, the dog continued following his master. The wind whipped around his body, his coarse, thick fur blocking out most of the chill. With piercing black eyes, he surveyed the landscape, but saw only a desolate land of snow and ice and hundreds upon hundreds of pine trees. A few more leaps and bounds brought him to the side of his master, where he trod patiently and obediently, attentive to his master’s every move and motion.
The man smiled when his dog joined him, but his cheeks were so chapped and sore that only a subtle lift of the corner of his mouth indicated that he was smiling. He glanced up. The town should be just a few miles away by now, and if he was lucky, he’d get there before midnight. That is, if the weather cooperated. If the snowfall stopped and the clouds rolled away, a clear night would let him find his bearings with the stars; they could get there by two in the morning. The dog sneezed loudly, and then stopped to lick and bite his forepaws, trying to rid himself of the gathering of snow and ice that had formed between the pads.
Even with the sun shining brightly down on them, it neither warmed the traveling duo nor melted the snow. The wind and driving snow acted like a thick barrier, keeping the heat at bay, and trapping the cold around them.
The man walked on, trudging slowly through the deep snow, his snow shoes doing a minimal job of keeping him above the white blanket. When too much time would be wasted to go around a drift, he and his dog would climb over the hard packed mound. As he went to descend the other side, his snow-shoes would slip on the packed snow, and more than once he took a tumble and slide.
Despite the thick gloves and hat and hood and layers upon layers of clothes, the man was chilled to the bone. He no longer dared to lick his chapped lips for the risk of them freezing. His fingers throbbed in the cold, and every time he would so much as twitch them, a burning sensation spread through his numb hands. But he pushed on, his legs like heavy lead every time he would lift them. Now and again he glanced up, trying to keep as straight a course as possible.
He had to get to the town. Or they would die.
With an ever increasing awareness to the biting cold that surrounded them, the big black dog held his head high, constantly looking for a shelter, a hollow in a pine, something. His instincts told him to curl up and ride out the harsh weather, but he knew there was no way to tell his master. His stomach growled insistently; it’d been a day, possibly more, since he had eaten. Master kept a canteen against his side, bundled up under his clothes, to help keep the freezing temperatures from turning the precious water to ice. But that method had failed hours ago, when they’d last stopped for a drink. It had frozen. The dog cast a forlorn glance up at Master, unsure of what to do. He trod on, occasionally stopping to bite away the ice and snow between his pads.
Night fell quickly. The glorious guiding light of the sun had disappeared around one or two o’clock, leaving the traveling duo only the hope of following the stars to reach their destination. But still the clouds and falling snow remained, hiding the heavens. A small amount of snow fell now, not the huge, blinding flakes that had been blown about earlier. The man kept his course as straight as possible, lining trees up and walking to them to ensure that he was walking straight.
With heavy footfalls, the man kept trudging on, his mind numb of all thought. He automatically placed one foot in front of the other, let it crunch the snow; sink in a foot or so. The moon illuminated the surroundings in a dim light, casting eerie shadows. The pines loomed higher than ever, their boughs swaying slightly in the wind. The wind itself was eerie; a quiet gust that brought only a small amount of snow with it. Now that the cutting, driving, whistling wind was gone, the world seemed quiet.
The man swallowed, his mouth dry, wishing for water. His canteen had long ago frozen, despite keeping it under his clothes, against his skin. How he wished for the cold liquid. A greenhorn might eat the snow out of desperation, but he knew what too much snow could do; it would reduce body temperature, and then the body would use extra energy to try to keep warm. When in a survival situation, energy is vital.
He glanced at his dog, now a dark blob in the night that floated along patiently, pouncing through the snow. It had been almost a day since they’d last eaten, but one who knew nothing about hardy sled dogs wouldn’t be able to tell. The animal was alert and eager, looking fresh off a sleep. The man returned his gaze in front of him, anticipating a break from the massive forest and to stumble into the town. He saw only more pines and an endless stretch of snow.
He longed to be back with the sled, the team, curled up amongst his dogs, asleep. To feel the warmth radiating from the canines as the wind rushed around them, piling snow in a sort of igloo as they slept. Then as the rays of sun poked through the holes in the natural shelter, they would rise, dig and push their way out into daylight, where the dogs would eagerly bounce about, waiting to be fed, and then hitched to the sled.
With explosive energy, the sled team would burst into action at his command, gliding through the powdery snow, sending a spray into the air. He loved to see the dogs run, powerful haunches pushing them along, their muscles straining, panting for joy at the pleasure of running. Each of the dogs had a special name, one that captured its personality, and identified its individuality. And each held a special place in his heart. They were his team, his life, his family.
It was his responsibility to care for and guide them, as well as protect them, and in turn, out of love, they protected him. It was this love that killed the entire team; all but the black dog that now loped at his side.
During the night, that cold, windy, pitch black night, a howl rose up in the forest. On occasion his team howled, out of play, but he didn’t recognize this howl. It was foreign and filled with animosity. Fear had coursed through him, making him hot enough to sweat in the freezing temperatures. It wasn’t fear for himself, but for his dogs.
Still groggy from sleep, he had stumbled out of the sled, over to where the dogs lay curled up, still harnessed. With shaking hands, he began to unhitch them, one by one, starting with the back pair, the strongest dogs. He whistled to them, waking them up. They could fend for themselves if they were free, unhindered by the tangling straps and harnesses.
Then he was aware of a presence, cold and devilish, one that made the hair prickle on his neck. Still nothing was to be seen, but something was watching them, watching and waiting. The prolonged anxiety of an attack had racked his body with shivers of fear, and this made his hands clumsy as they worked. Only the first three dogs were loosed before the nightmare began.
Out of the darkness came hellish cries of anger as the enemy attacked. The loosed dogs made a stand, howling and growling, snapping and gnashing their teeth. With a vengeance they protected him and the remaining team who paced in the harness, fearfully awaiting the hatred of the wild wolves to rain upon them.
While the brunt of the fury of the wolves was turned on the three loosed dogs, the man had worked to free as many more of his companions as he could, but only managed to unhitch the lead dog before the wolves descended upon the rest, and entered into a rolling frenzy of battle. He had backed away slowly, watching with a helpless fear as his family was brutally punished. His gun, his only weapon of defense, was on the sled, in the midst of the battle. Huddled against the trunk of a huge pine, he watched as the harnessed team, defenseless and inexperienced, succumbed to the brazen fury of the wolves.
When the yelps of pain and whimpering of helplessness of the team finally ceased, the sickening sound of ripping flesh reached his ears as the wolves enjoyed their kills. He remained pinned to the tree, afraid to move for fear of setting the wolves upon him. Minutes passed, long, tiring minutes. Then the wolves slinked away, back into the woods, no doubt licking their chops, satisfied on a full stomach. It was then that he had inched forward, slowly, up to the carcasses of his team. Six bodies lay strewn about, and he identified each and every one of them, just by looking into their eyes. Those loving, warm, caring eyes, now glazed over, staring vacantly off into the distance. He stroked their ears, whispering to them. He glanced about for the seventh dog, but when it was nowhere to be found, he naturally assumed that it had been dragged off as a prize.
A low growl of warning came from behind the man. He slowly turned his head to see a large wolf in a defensive stance, its legs braced, head low, teeth bared. It was just a few feet away. Then, in a flash, the wolf leapt. The man reacted just as quick under the effects of adrenaline, and turned so he was on his back. The wolf landed on him squarely, massive paws pinning him down, the large, evil eyes glinting in the moonlight. The growl continued, lower, the teeth edged closer to his throat. The man didn’t move, didn’t feel compelled too. He had lost all his energy by just watching the slaughter of his team.
Just as the wolf opened his large canines, and a string of saliva had landed on the man’s face, the wolf was blown over by a tremendous force. A scuffle formed three feet away between two animals, and yelps and growls sounded. In a quick bite to the throat, the one animal fell silent and lay limp on its side. The victor stood over the defeated, then turned to face the man. It trotted over, licked his face with a dry tongue. With trembling hands he pushed the head back, looked into the eyes, and knew immediately it was the missing seventh dog, the leader.
And he pulled the dog close, cradling it in his arms. The animal let him hold him in such an unnatural position, fully sensing his master’s relief, and let him relish it. Within minutes the man had fallen asleep, his body catching up as the adrenaline wore off. The dog lay curled up with his master, fully awake, listening, and watching over his master.
The man wiped his eyes, ridding himself of the tears that slid down his face at the memory of that awful night. He glanced once more to the black dog at his right side, to ensure his only remaining companion was there. He was.
The dog cast a look up at Master, carefully watching his every move. From the way he walked, he knew he was tired, extremely tired. He himself was tired, and knew it best that they both stop and rest. Calmly, the black lead dog altered course and trotted over to a pine trunk, where he stopped and curled up. His black eyes were trained on Master. In his mind, he called Master to come and rest.
Surprised at his dog’s action, the man stopped for a moment. It was dark out, too dark to see much more than the huge trees, and he was exhausted. The dog was right; it was time to take a break. He quickly made his way to the dog and lay down, resting his head on the animal’s furry midsection. Comforted by the small warmth, he was soon asleep.
To the dog, morning could not have come soon enough. All night he had stayed awake, listening to the heavy paws of wolves hit the snow as they surrounded them, whining and nipping and pacing amongst themselves. He had growled, low and gravelly, warning the beasts to stay away. His heart raced at the possibility of a fight, and was surprised when the wolves loped away into the darkness. Still, though the danger had run off, he kept watch, always listening, always protecting Master.
As the first light of the morning sun reached them, he rose slowly, careful not to jar Master too much, stretched, and then quickly shook off a thin layer of dusty snow. Master was still sound asleep. He looked around, sniffed the air. He needed to kill something, since it was obvious Master had no food. With his course black fur capturing the heat from the sun, he trotted off a little way, casting glances back at his master. The day was bright and sunny, with hardly any wind, and the air was crisp, with an occasional snowflake falling here and there. Nothing like it had been the day before with the cutting wind and the persistent downfall of snow.
Then he heard a noise; a distant rushing sound. He stood stock still, listening, not daring to stray too far from Master. The sound came closer. Next he could make out the excited whining of his own kind, mixed with their heavy panting and the jovial laugh of humans. A team, a sled team! His eyes scanned the forest to pick up the sight, and finally, he saw it. It was not just one team, but three! One human stood on each sled, guiding his team, joking amongst themselves, laughing.
The black dog cast another longing glance back at Master, and saw him asleep still. The sled dogs meant protection, and the humans meant food. He had to stop these teams! He would lead them to Master! With a quick burst of speed, his black form flew across the white snow, and he closed the gap between him and the teams. He let out a bark, then another, and another, calling his kind. The sled dogs turned their heads, but continued running. One of the mushers shouted and pointed at him. They had noticed! But then a gun was pulled out.
In the middle of a huge, joyful bound toward the teams, a crack sounded, and the big black dog landed with a thud in the snow.
The man had woken up to find his lead dog gone. He quickly looked around, and saw him running toward…sled teams? Joy raced through him, and he stood up and began running as best he could with his snow-shoes through the powdery snow, racing toward the teams. His dog was almost there.
Then a shot sounded, and to his horror, his dog crashed to the ground, rolled through the snow, and stopped, didn’t move. The man continued running toward his dog and the teams, who, by now, had stopped.
He reached the black form in the snow and fell to his knees. Red soaked through the snow by the dog’s chest. He picked up the head and looked into those soulful eyes. That vacant look that had been in the eyes of the other six dogs now occupied the black dog before him. With a cry he buried his face into the still, fuzzy neck.
A strong, gloved hand gripped his shoulder, and the man spun. He stared at one of the mushers. “I am sorry. My companions and I thought your dog to be a wolf.” The musher spoke with a tone of deep regret.
The man merely shook his head; cast a mournful look at his friend lying in the snow. The two other mushers walked over, and apologized as well. When asked where the rest of his team was, the man simply said that they had perished at the hand of wolves. A canteen was handed over, full of cold water, and the man drank, ashamed that it was only he who got to taste the refreshing, reviving water, instead of both he and his dog.
The mushers helped the man onto a sled, and at his request, placed his dog on his chest, then covered them up with heavy bear skins, and continued their run. The man looked down at his dog on his chest, looked into those loving eyes that had held so much passion in them. When he realized that his dog had been trying to gain the attention of the teams for a rescue, his eyes brimmed with tears, and he unsuccessfully blinked them back.
Love had held them together. Love had torn them apart.