by Morgan Dawn & Justine Bennett


“Every generation thinks it has the answers, and every generation is humbled by nature.”



Chapter 2: The Village

“Our ability to delude ourselves may be an important survival tool.” —Jane Wagner  



      The ground was wet and muddy, but Diefenbaker did not hesitate. His tongue lolled out of the side of his mouth, and his paws slipped on the wet stones cascading down to the river. The ground was firmer there. The river was still white and frozen shut, ignoring the onslaught of spring in the green unfurling along its banks. Sharp shrieks and laughter ricocheted between the houses above the river, as three children chased Diefenbaker between the trucks and stacks of wood. Even at his age, he could still outrun them—at least as far as the river. There, he dropped the muddy rag he had been carrying and wagged his tail in victory.

     “Go, Dief,” yelled the smaller boy, in the lead. His blond hair was plastered with sweat and he'd lost his cap as he passed the Nelsons' cabin. It was his only one and he'd have to go back and pick it up before returning home. “We're the best,” he cried, sliding down the last few feet and throwing his arms around the wolf.

     “Not fair. We'll beat you next time when he's on our team.” The older boy jumped the bank and reached over to tousle Dief's ears. “We always win, when he's on the team.” His brown face crinkled with amusement as Dief tried to snatch the rag back. His dark black hair swung loose and tangled over his shoulders as he wrestled for ownership of the dirty piece of cloth.

     “Well, of course we win when he's on the team, Ussak. He's Fraser's dog.” Jason stood up, rubbing pebbles and twigs off his pant legs.

     “He's a wolf, not a dog, you aglu.” Ussak rolled his eyes in irritation.

     “Yeah, well, you're a ig- igluvigaq.” Jason stuttered over his best Inuit insult and Ussak snickered. Jason stood as tall as his ten-year-old frame would allow him and went on regardless. “Ray says he's part dog. No way he could be a real wolf and live in Chicago all those years.”

     “Why not?” Ussak argued.

     Jason frowned. Sometimes Ussak could be so dense. “'Cause in cities they don't allow wolves to run free in the streets. 'Cause there they belong in zoos.”

     “Ah! Well, that's it, then!” said Victor. The two other boys turned to look at Ussak's brother. He was almost as tall as Ussak, except he didn't squint. Ussak had lost his glasses two months ago and scrounging nearby settlements hadn't yet turned up a replacement. “We're here now. So he's a wolf and not a dog.” Jason and Ussak both pondered this for a moment and then Jason nodded in agreement.

     “Okay. But he's a special wolf.” That compromise settled all differences.

     Ussak tossed the muddy rag over to his brother, who caught it left-handed. Victor stuffed it into a pocket of his oversized jacket. Like almost everything the Nunigaq brothers wore, it had been scavenged from somewhere else. They hadn't had anything when they got here, not even parents. Jason envied Victor the jacket. It had pockets all over it and real wolverine fur trim on the hood. And who cared how the owner had died.

     Jason rocked back and forth, then pushed his bangs back up against his forehead. “I think losers should have to go out on the ice.” Ussak was always bragging he could do anything, just because he was Inuit. “You can take Dief with you,” he added magnanimously.

     Ussak sneered and loomed over Jason. “No, I think winners should have to do it.” He grabbed Jason's coat and pulled hard. Jason refused to be intimidated and dug his heels into the mud.

     “No one should go on the ice,” Victor said sharply, abruptly edging between them. Both boys stepped back in surprise. “Fraser said break-up is probably going to be tomorrow. You wanna be out there when it gives? It's a long way to the ocean.”

     Ussak frowned. “This river doesn't go to the ocean. It runs into the Yukon and that runs into the Mackenzie and then—ouch!” He peered down at Diefenbaker, who had nipped his knee.

     “See?” Jason said, stepping further back from the bank. “Even Dief knows it's not safe.”

     Ussak looked fiercely at his brother, who only smiled in agreement. Red-faced, he headed up toward the slope, not waiting to see if the others would follow. “Well, if Fraser says it's break-up...” he muttered.

     Victor and Jason scrambled after him, Dief rising leisurely off his haunches. “What should we do next?” Jason offered when they reached the top. They stood there, the crisp breeze carrying the sounds and smells of the nearby houses across the water.

     “How about we build a mud fort?” Victor loved playing war and making battle plans. His mother had even made him a small war-feather band to weave into his braids. “We could use Jason as a spy and have him infiltrate the enemy camp.”

     “Yeah,” Jason piped up. “And they can torture me, but I won't give out any secrets.” His blue eyes flashed dark with imaginary heroics.

     Ussak pounded Jason on the shoulder with a bit more force than necessary. “You'd better not. But we'll need more players.” They headed back toward the small encampment, Diefenbaker following even more slowly, rooting among the woodpiles for an interesting scent.

     “Well, we can always ask the Dunlaps. They never play fair, so we can cheat too.” The voices faded as they scooted ahead.

     From his perch on the hood of one of the rusted trucks, Ray watched the children clatter by. Kids were everywhere and always the same, he thought, no matter what; up at the crack of dawn, even here, where even in May dawn started sometime in the middle of the night; and getting into as much danger and trouble as possible before the adults got up to stop them. He shifted the rifle loosely against his arm, yawned, and squinted against the glare of the sunrise, finally clearing the hills across the river. He should have another talk with their parents, or Fraser should. It just wasn't safe for little kids to be out alone, not even with Diefenbaker. They'd lost half a dozen dogs this winter to wolves that overnight seemed to have abandoned their fear of man. The smell that once meant danger to them now only meant a source of dead meat. And now that it was spring, the bears had begun appearing, hungry after the long winter.

     Ray slid off the hood and began making one more round of the settlement. He was getting pretty tired of doing the early morning watch. Not that there weren't others willing to share the load. But somehow everyone seemed to assume that Fraser and Ray, as policemen, would naturally take the most difficult assignments. And Ray had to grudgingly agree that there were certain people who didn't seem to know one end of a gun from the other. He just wished Fraser were with him now so he could complain about it.

     Fraser had been gone nearly ten days, on another snowmobile trip down the frozen river with Istas. “Scout and scavenge patrol,” he called it: scouting for more survivors and scavenging for more supplies, especially fuel. It would be the last trip before the ice broke up. And then, finally, they could get ready to leave and go back home.

     Ray picked his way across the junkyard of broken, but still possibly useful, machinery that littered the perimeter of the village. Every rural community he had ever seen, from Florida to the frozen north, had to have one, and Stewart Junction was no different. Except that here it seemed to be at least a hundred years of junk, dating back to gold‑rush days and before. The village itself was a makeshift conglomeration of log cabins and buildings of weathered planks and new pressboard, strung out along the bluff above the river where the old steamboat moorings rotted. Ray turned his back on the river and headed out toward the cleared flats that edged up against the forest, skirting the gravel road that was the village's hopeful connection to the rest of the world.

     The road looked good from here. Thaw had begun a couple of weeks ago, but the surface already looked almost firm enough to support the weight of a car. Ray paused and looked longingly down the road, to where it darkened and disappeared in the trees curving up the surrounding hills. Not yet. He turned and walked back along the road, scanning for what Fraser called ”scat” and had been lecturing him about for what seemed like months. Yeah, like that. Too big for dog, or even human. Damn. Ray wasn't sure if Fraser and the others hadn't been taking him on the equivalent of a snipe hunt with all this talk of bears, but nobody who had lived here, unlike the tourists, seemed to want to go very far without a rifle or shotgun.

     The road didn't so much end as spread out into muddy fingers that wandered down to the river between the houses. Past the tidy new building that had been the tourist visitor center and general store and was now guarded by Susan's team of staked‑out huskies. They knew Ray, of course, but they set up a ferocious barking and heaving on their chains regardless. Further on was the empty ground that he'd been told was the Zusis' garden, pride of the Yukon . He'd only ever seen it as a flat expanse of snow. Today, under the cold morning light, barely imaginable hints of green colored the emergent muddy patches. Spring. And, annoyingly, just when Fraser had predicted it. That was okay, though. They had survived, the plague was over, and it was spring. Not the horror that Ray had feared six months before.

     Gasoline would continue to be an important commodity—trucks and equipment they had plenty of. Although the wilderness population was sparse, most homesteads had turned out to be well equipped. Self‑reliance was the norm in the Yukon . Which was good. He'd only had to handle one petty theft, a few fistfights, and one early onset of paranoid delusion all winter. It was bad enough he had to play cop in this wilderness, but at least real criminal behavior hadn't been in evidence. It was too cold to have the energy to really make trouble. Though it hadn't been too cold for some things. Ray avoided thinking about the man he'd found one morning who had taken Carey Klafter's way out.

     The smell of Ilene's cooking reached him as he passed her cabin. He saw Diefenbaker nuzzling at the door, and debated calling him back. Not that Diefenbaker listened any better out here than he had in Chicago . Ilene Zusi, recently widowed, opened the door to let the animal inside and waved to him as he passed.

     “Hey, Ilene,” Ray nodded in greeting.

     “Morning, Ray,” she smiled. “Have you seen Jason? He took off with Diefenbaker before breakfast.” She had wrapped a heavy brown jacket around herself, but her bare feet stuck out and were turning blue in the cold.

     “Yeah, he was headed down to the Dunlaps' about half a hour ago.”

     Ilene pursed her lips. “Well, since I don't expect they'll feed him he should be back soon. You been up all night again?”

     “Naw, only half the night. It's just like being on a stakeout, only more boring.”

     She was a small woman but looked strong. Her son Jason clearly had inherited her blond hair and plump round face. Her husband—Ray strained to remember him—had had red hair. He'd been the last plague victim. They hadn't known it at the time. Had kept her and her son in quarantine for at least a month. By then they had figured out that the plague had a two-week incubation period. You either got it or you were immune. But no one had wanted to take any more chances.

     He and Fraser had stayed there at the Blue Heron Café for over a month. They buried Carey next to his wife, then moved themselves into the café. One of them always kept an eye on the road, hoping and fearing that someone would come through. They inventoried every building, every corner and cupboard, anything to keep busy and not think about what might happen. They found enough batteries to run the radio nonstop, but the only thing they heard was the buzz of static. The weeks passed and they were still healthy, but there was nothing they could do. No one came down, or up, the highway. The aspens turned red and gold, and then naked, and termination dust whitened the hills, before they saw another survivor.

     It was Istas Makah, from the Tutchone village up the Stewart River . The plague had burned itself out there and he had come down to the highway to look for survivors and supplies before snowfall blocked the roads. The village was larger and better built than the truck stop, and so Fraser and Ray joined the diverse group of survivors who had been found or straggled in, clustering together for the winter.

     Once the euphoria of surviving and discovering other survivors had cleared, Ray had wanted to head straight back south. It was so obvious a decision that Fraser's hesitation felt like a joke.

     “Ray, I'm not sure that's such a good idea.”

     “Not a good idea? Going home? What's not good about it?”

     A brief expression flashed across Fraser's face, almost a grimace. “Look at these people here. Half of them are just tourists, caught in a strange environment by this catastrophe. They probably want to go home too, but how will they get there? Nobody has enough food to travel with, or clothes for the winter; there aren't enough vehicles and we don't even know if there will be fuel along the way. They'll have to stay here, and the same constraints will apply. I can't just leave them to fend for themselves.”

     “Fraser, not everybody is your responsibility,” Ray began, but the words died in his throat. Plainly, they were Fraser's responsibility. He was still a Mountie, and this was still Canada , at least by some definition. Ray would have done the same thing in Fraser's position. Hell, that's what he was trying to do: get home to the U.S. and Chicago and his family and his job to take care of them. If they were still alive. If anyone else was still alive. The intolerable, unacceptable thought ambushed him and for a moment he thought he might be sick. Fraser's strong hand on his shoulder pulled him back to himself.

     “Ray, Chicago is a major city. Anything that can be done will be done there. The government and other authorities will make cities a priority for health, for supplies, and for safety. But out here there's really not much infrastructure and not a lot of reason for any authority to make taking care of survivors a priority, if they even realize we exist. We can do a lot of good right here, for now.”

     “You can. I can't see what difference I'm going to make. I've got responsibilities of my own.” His voice sounded thin to his ears.

     Fraser's expression switched to compassion and acceptance. “Then you should go, Ray. My duties shouldn't stand in the way of what you feel you must do.” It wasn't as if, after all these years, Ray didn't know what Fraser was doing. His mental hackles rose every time Fraser got that slightly noble look on his face, but it never seemed to change the outcome, just the residual pool of resentment Ray had to deal with afterward.

     “So you're just going to let me take off without you? You think I'd leave you here without a thought?”

     “I need to stay over the winter. Just the winter. If you can wait till next spring, then I can come with you.”

     It was a brief and unhappy struggle in Ray's conscience. Fraser was probably right. Ray did not look forward to driving three thousand miles alone across a devastated North America in winter. Who knew what he might run into, what he might find? And he could be useful here. And Fraser wanted him to stay. Though Ray tried to keep it secret from himself, he knew that that was what tipped the scales, and he hated the resentment that boiled through him because of it.

     “Okay, maybe you're right. Just for the winter then. But in the spring we're getting out of here and back to where civilization comes from.”

     He inhaled appreciatively. The warm smell of bread rose into the early morning air. Ilene had been living in the Yukon for two years and knew a lot about using local plants for food. Not that they'd had much need of this skill this winter—food, canned and dried, they had been able to find in plenty. The supplies on the surrounding homesteads, supplemented by Fraser's hunting skills, made this an easy winter.

     And by next winter they'd all be back in Chicago —or Edmonton , or Vancouver —where camping trips and Boy Scouts wouldn't matter as much. Ray tugged on his wool cap, pulling it lower over his ears. How could they stand the cold? It was spring, the newly rising sun was shinning weakly through the trees, and he still felt like someone had dipped him in the frozen river.

     He picked up the pace, circled around Ilene's cabin, and headed back toward the village “center.” Just a few large boulders and the “totem.” Ray paused in front of the object and shook his head skeptically. Why a bunch of New Age Indians would leave the cities to come here and set up an “authentic” fishing camp was beyond him. You'd never catch him trying to reconnect to his roots. There was only so much pasta and tales of Sicilian revenge he could stomach, before enlightened American reason kicked in.

     He stamped his feet a few times and waited. He felt sometimes that that was all he was doing. Waiting for spring. Waiting for the right time to go home. Waiting for someone to relieve him from his post. Waiting for Fraser to return from his weekly wanderings.

     A hand clapped his shoulder, and he jerked abruptly around. “Christ, Danny, don't do that!”

     Danny stepped back, laughing. “You say that every time. I know you know I'm here. Those cop instincts, I guess.” His features had a blunt, honest look to them. He still wore the wire-rim glasses so popular a few years before.

     Ray grudgingly returned the smile and shifted his rifle to the safety position. He didn't mind Danny. And, it was an old joke between them. “You know I can't tell when you're sneaking up on me. I don't have half of your instincts.”

     Danny's brown eyes crinkled with amusement. “Yeah, right. Born and bred in Toronto , taught mathematics for four years, and then I move up here to reconnect with my heritage, give my kids a chance to build self‑esteem. An honest‑to‑goodness native warrior, I am.” He glanced down self‑deprecatingly at his clothes: a thick green coat over a baggy plaid shirt and a comfortable pair of old Levi's.

     Ray leaned back, his hip resting on the larger boulder. “Don't knock it, Danny. None of us were born into this life. Nothing could have ever prepared us for any of this.”

     His face sobering, Danny joined Ray on the boulder, laying his rifle beside him. “Well, some of us were prepared. And we're all damn grateful for it. Without you two—well, I don't know.”

     Ray stared at his muddy boots, feeling his face grow warm. “Well, what, Danny? All we did was tell you what you already knew: hunker down, wait for the spring, keep the peace and morale up.”

     Danny shook his head. He gestured vaguely around him. “It meant a lot to have a cop and a Mountie here. We're pretty good at managing the normal ups and downs. But disaster management, well, having that kind of training is really helpful. And when it comes time to organize our trip to Whitehorse —well, we've pretty much agreed that you two should take the lead.”

     Ray shifted uncomfortably. He hadn't thought of it that way.

     “Well, I need to run. Nothing much to report—keep an eye out for Fraser, will you?” Ray clapped Danny on the back and pushed off the boulder. “Hate for him to miss the big day tomorrow—having predicted it and all.”

     Danny shook his head. “We've always had a betting pool on the break-up day. This year, no one wanted to bet against Fraser. So we'll channel the energy into the festival instead.”

     “I doubt even Benny could predict the exact day, over a week before it happens.” Ray jiggled a bit in the mud, scraping a pebble from his boot. “But I am always up for a party. Even one with booze.” He nodded knowingly at Danny.

     Danny blushed and turned away to pick up his rifle. He'd graciously bowed out of the moonshine business after the rest of the village threatened to tie him to a chair, pour his concoctions over him, and set him on fire. “I said I was a mathematician, not a chemist.”

     Ray smiled. “Hey, no sweat. Besides, there was more than enough beer lying around for the winter. And when we hook up again with the outside world, well, we'll never need that particular skill set again. So we're safe.” Waving one‑handed, he started back toward the cabin he and Fraser shared.

     The light peeked above the tops of the trees, offering a new day. As he sloshed his way through the square he nodded to the early risers. The people hereabouts took their sunlight hours seriously. He, used to his Chicago nightlife, had found it annoying. But he had adjusted.

     Turning the corner, he saw Larry Dene and angled sharply to the left. No luck; the old man barreled toward him with a straightforwardness that Ray had always found somewhat frightening.

     “Hey, you! Why you still here hanging around? I thought you were leaving.” Larry never closed his jacket; he'd lived all of his life in the Yukon , and never seemed to see the need to button his coat—or his mouth. He had a wiry build and deeply weathered face that was permanently flushed and veined. His cropped hair, once blonde, had faded into a dull white.

     Ray looked down at the old coot, with the benefit of his height, and yawned. “Sure I'm leaving. I'm going back to bed.”

     Larry rooted himself in Ray's path. “I'm going with you when you get out of here. Gonna need somebody to keep an eye on you. Teach you how to shit in the woods.” Larry laughed and poked Ray's arm to make sure he got the joke.

     The smell of whiskey wafted into Ray's face and his irritation turned into active annoyance. “Fraser and I will be just fine without your help. If you want to hurry us up why don't you help move the wood stacks so we can get at the trucks? Now that it's spring we won't need to keep so much wood all over the place.”

     Larry looked at him suspiciously. “Some people think you're full of it. It'd be a good thing if you left sooner rather than sticking your dumbass nose into everything.”

     And I stayed here because Fraser thought these people needed our help? Ray thought as he stepped around Larry. Some people could not handle the isolation. Others could not live without it. Larry always seemed to cope better when he was away from others. Still, of all the drunks he'd had to handle this winter, Larry was the most constant.

     “Fine. Go talk to Dunlap. He wants to start clearing the road already. I just thought making a stab at seeing that we don't have to walk out of here might appeal to you.”

     Larry narrowed his eyes and shook his head with an exaggerated effort. “What do you think I am? Stupid? I'd rather shovel shit than that dirt. The wood can sit and rot.” He swaggered off quickly before Ray could answer.

     Ray made it back to the cabin he shared with Fraser before being waylaid by anyone else. Once inside, Ray pulled off his leather gloves and scraped the mud off his boots before pulling them off. The cabin was small; housing was scarce, as the village had been designed for only six families. In fact, it had been built as a summer fishing cabin and was intended primarily for short sleepovers. Furnishings were very sparse: a stove, a small table, and the bed. Stacked in one corner were the various projects he and Fraser had been toying with over the winter. But he had a bigger project to deal with. Danny had the right idea; he and Fraser still had a lot of planning to do. First Whitehorse , then back on the Alcan south. Edmonton , Calgary , and Chicago . Most likely, they'd have communications and transport restored in Whitehorse . He shoved a couple of pieces of wood into the stove, yawned again, and sat on the bed, running over the comforting future again. Normalcy. Just a matter of time. He didn't bother to undress. The covers were clammy but he fell asleep quickly.

     The loud knocking took a moment to penetrate his sleep. He rolled onto his side and called out, “Yeah?” The knocking continued and Ray stumbled out of bed and opened the door.

     “Sorry to bother you, Ray,” Istas said. “It's Alain.”

     Ray winced. “Oh God. What's he done this time?” he said, running his hand through his hair and forcing his brain awake. “When did you guys get back? Where's Fraser?”

     Istas followed Ray back inside. Ray sat down on the bed and looked up at him, feeling the crick in his neck. Tall, he was in his early thirties, already graying his black hair at the temples, neither plain nor particularly attractive, but he carried himself well. His face was square, with a straight nose, a stubborn chin and a well‑defined jaw. He wore his dark hair tightly braided and looked every inch the competent woodsman. His two brothers and father had purchased the river land six years ago and had worked hard to establish their alternative settlement. They had worked even harder this last year to keep the unexpected population fed.

     Istas looked soberly at Ray. “Couple hours ago. Fraser stopped off at Ilene's for breakfast. I went straight home and Elu told me she found him in with the snowmobiles. He had smashed the front of one with a sledgehammer and was working on the back half. Luckily, he stopped when she came out.”

     Ray breathed in sharply. “Where's he now?”

     Istas sighed. “She's making him breakfast. He looks awfully thin.” He pushed back his heavy parka hood impatiently.

     Ray began rooting on the floor for his boots. “Well, why isn't he cooking for himself? We've left him with enough supplies.” He bent his head to rebutton his shirt. Istas shifted awkwardly in the silence. Ray sighed. “Don't tell me. He thinks that cooking causes the plague?”

     Istas tossed Ray his gloves as he stood up. “No, it's radios that cause the plague, remember? The virus spreads through the ether and enters your home through your radio.”

     Ray stepped forward and noted a slight tugging at his waist. He looked down and saw that he had misbuttoned his shirt. He fumbled with the first button, then let his hands drop. He was dealing with a paranoid delusion, not running for a beauty contest. “Yeah, yeah, I remember. I was the one who found the radios smashed. Every damn one of them. Never say insanity isn't methodical.”

     He pulled a scarf up off the floor and jammed it around his throat. He had just warmed up nicely now. The cold would be even more noticeable.

     Istas shrugged. “Elu said this time he was ranting about the 'mobiles being dangerous. `They can glide over the snow and help carry the virus.'”

     Snorting, Ray slapped his jacket closed. “Well, if that's the cause, then why did he wait until spring to start smashing them?”

     “Maybe because we've been using them fairly nonstop all winter,” Istas said, reaching for the door.

     Ray motioned Istas ahead and hopped over the sill into his boots. “Or maybe he's just crazy. Oh well, it's just Alain. I've handled more schizos than you can count. Chicago 's full of them.”

     Once he was outside, his nonchalance vanished into the brisk wind that curled around his face. Istas led the way silently, leaving Ray to follow. Just after the first snowfall, Alain had wandered into their lives, haggard with grief and exposure. His family had homesteaded fifty miles north. After the first news reports, they'd isolated themselves completely. Anyone approaching the cabin had been warned away or shot. It would have worked, too. Just a few weeks more and the plague would have burned itself out. But a crazed tourist, desperate to find help for his dying family, had driven his SUV into the cabin. Alain shot the survivors and the family fled the contaminated bodies. Three days later his wife and two daughters died.

     Ray slipped in the mud, almost turning his ankle. Alain had been fine at first. As fine as anyone could have expected. But he had begun to obsess about the plague. Took so many cold snow plunges that he almost caught pneumonia. Then, after the Christmas celebration, they'd returned to find all their radios smashed. While they'd celebrated the holiday, Alain had entered the unlocked cabins and storage sheds and smashed every radio he could find. Hadn't even tried to hide it afterward. Was eager to explain to all how he'd saved them from the plague. It was all, in Ray's opinion, utterly pathetic. And even more pathetic was Ray's own sympathy for the man, which left him unable to just write him off as a typical loony. No, he had to make sure he was the one on call to deal with Alain's increasing oddities.

     Nodin's cabin came into sight. Smoke wafted through the front yard, hazing the weak sun. Ray signaled to Istas that he was going to the back of his brother's cabin to check on the 'mobiles. Istas nodded and scraped his shoes clear of mud before knocking.

     Satisfied that Alain had had time to damage only one of their snowmobiles, Ray soon followed. Nodin and Elu had managed to divide their limited space into a very comfortable seating area and curtained-off sleeping quarters.

     Alain was sitting at the kitchen table. Istas had joined him and was sipping coffee. Elu stood with her back to the door, flipping pancakes at the stove. Ray's stomach grumbled.

     “Morning, Elu. Can I join you?”

     She turned, her face crinkling in a smile. Her hair had just started to show gray, the silver strands giving her slender figure a distinguished air. The smile did not reach her eyes. They glanced anxiously over to the table. “Please come in, Ray. I am certain you must be hungry.”

     “Thanks,” Ray said. “Hey, Alain,” he added as he settled to the table.

     Alain looked up from his plate and nodded automatically. His attention quickly returned to the food he had been wolfing down. Ray studied him. His short, compact figure had thinned. His brown hair was matted and his eyes were rimmed with red. He had stopped shaving and his beard had started curling over his chin. On his way to being the village's first street person.

     Elu placed a mug on the table and handed Ray a spoon. “I'm sorry, we're out of sugar. Nodin was supposed to bring me some back before he and his father left.”

     “No problem, Elu. I was on the graveyard watch. Unsweetened is fine. So when will they be back?”

     Istas nodded to Elu, who turned back to the stove. “Sometime today. They went out the same time Fraser and I left.”

     “They'd better scrub when they get back.” Alain mumbled. “Can't be too careful. Never can be too careful.” His eyes fixed on Ray and he swallowed hard. “Don't want to lose them.”

     “We'll be careful, Alain.” Ray accepted the plate of pancakes from Elu with a smile of thanks, though his appetite had suddenly vanished. “So how have you been doing?”

     More mumbling as Alain turned his attention back to his plate. Ray took a stab with his fork and tried another tack. “Alain, do you remember what I told you when we gave you your own cabin?”

     This caught Alain's attention, and he looked up. “No.”

     Ray refused to be sidetracked. “Yes, you do. We told you that the cabin was a special clean zone. And that you had to stay there. Did something happen? Did you have any trouble?”

     Alain was silent for a moment, then picked up his fork again. “No.”

     Frustrated, Ray reached for his mug and took a swallow. He met Istas's gaze and shook his head.

     “Alain.” Elu walked over from the stove and stood next to the table. “Are you sure everything is fine? I know you didn't forget your promise.” Her soft voice reached across the space and stilled Alain's mechanical eating. He looked up at her, his eyes suddenly focusing on her as if he were seeing her clearly for the first time.

     “I don't want anything to happen to you. You have to be more careful. All of you,” he added, looking over to include Ray and Istas. “I have to make certain nothing happens to you.”

     The coffee tasted suddenly bitter and Ray pushed the cup away. Madness he could handle. Compassion was too difficult to distance himself from.

     Elu placed her hand on Alain's shoulder and squeezed it gently. “We know you worry, Alain. But so do we. We need you to stay in your cabin. Right?” She looked over to Istas for confirmation.

     He nodded somberly, his black eyes steady. “Elu's right. You can help keep watch. If you see anything wrong, you need to use the flare and signal. Do you still have the flare Ray gave you?”

     Alain nodded, patting his jacket pocket. Great, thought Ray. He's carrying it around like a wallet. Talk about letting children play with matches. He kept his misgivings to himself, however. Alain had bigger problems to worry about.

     Istas continued. “Well, then, all you have to do is set off the flare and then hide. Ray and Fraser will know what to do.”

     Ray nodded encouragingly. “So remember your promise. Stay in the cabin. One of us will check in on you each week. And use the flare if you have an emergency. Okay?”

     Alain hesitated. His eyes seemed to be pleading for something that Ray knew he could not give. This was the best they could do. Their community was not equipped to handle nut cases. The incident with the radios had disturbed more than one person. If this had been Chicago , Alain would have been safely committed and treated. All they had was a few courses in first aid and a native healer. Hardly experts in traumatic shock.

     Alain finally nodded and sank back into his chair. “I understand, Ray. I am sorry. Sometimes it gets lonely out there. You know.” For a brief moment, another person sat in the kitchen, a man Ray recognized and understood too well. A tired man, bowed with grief, grimly holding on to the fragments of his self in a cruel and merciless world.

     Ray shoved his chair back from the table. “Thanks, Elu. I'll let myself out.” Istas stood up and followed Ray back out into the cold air.

     “Thanks, Ray.” Istas stood on the porch, his breath misting in the cold air. Ray buckled his jacket tighter and then crammed his cap onto his head. “Not a problem. You'll see him back to his cabin?”

     “Yes. I'll bring a few extra supplies with me. And I'll check around the cabin to make certain there's nothing else he needs.” Istas's calm, competent manner made him a pleasure to work with. No surprise that Fraser hunted with him.

     Ray trudged back down the muddy track for what seemed like the hundredth time this endless morning. He glanced at the sun, then at his watch, and stumbled over a still frozen rut. Barely eight a.m. and all he could think about was finally catching a few hours' sleep. Not even the jarring thunks of early morning woodchopping could keep him from falling instantly asleep.

     It was the soft strike of a match and the muted clatter of a coffee pot that roused him. Fraser was lighting the stove, his movements quiet and economical. Ray uncurled from against the wall and rolled over. “Mhhm. Good trip?” he muttered into the pillow. The soft sounds of Fraser moving about were causing a feeling of warmth and contentment to slowly start to grow.

     “Yes, we found more caribou and deer sign. The migration is beginning.” Fraser's voice seemed to come from far off and Ray felt himself slipping back into sleep. There were more muted noises, but no welcome sag to the bedsprings. He rolled over again and poked his nose out to check on Fraser.

     “Yeah? God, it's cold.”

     “The fire's gone out,” Fraser explained patiently. Master of the obvious. Ray rubbed the sleep from his eyes with his fist and turned to untangle his feet, annoyed without reason.

     “It's spring, Fraser. We should be dancing amongst the daffodils. Not freezing our balls.” He kicked the covers loose, then tried to smooth them back. Fraser was still puttering around at the stove and did not answer. Not going to bed, then.

     The midday sun leaked through the curtain. “God, what time is it?” Fraser stood up and brushed his hair back. It had grown long and curled over the neck of his sweater. He looked tired. No wonder, after over a week in the bush, even bushier than this place. But there was more; he looked, maybe, depressed. Ray sat up.

     “Not that late. I'll have coffee ready soon. Did you manage to sleep?” Fraser sat down at the table and started unlacing his boots.

     “Like a baby. How else am I supposed to sleep—I was up before dawn trudging through mud, looking at birds, twigs, and stones. Just like I've been doing for the past four months.” Ray tumbled to the edge of the bed.

     “You didn't have to volunteer for all of the morning duty, Ray. There's plenty who would be happy to share the load.” Fraser scratched the chair as he leaned back to close the stove door. Ray shot him a skeptical look, which Fraser ignored.

     “I didn't volunteer. No, I stood there one morning, while you raised your hand when Nodin said, `Hey, let's set up a few patrols,' and the next thing I know, I'm standing waist deep in the drifts waiting for a snowplow that will never come. You're the Boy Scout, not me.”

     “Well, no, Ray. I never joined the Boy Scouts. I don't think there was a troop in Inuvik when I was growing up. But I thought you said something once about your experiences as a Cub Scout...”

     “Oh, just shut up, Fraser. I'm not awake enough yet.” Ray felt around under the bed for his socks while Fraser carefully poured out the boiling coffee into mugs. Works like a charm every time, Ray thought, and I really should be immune to it by now. Fraser's talents for nagging and teasing put his mother and sisters to shame. After six months of close quarters they had settled on a morning ritual of Ray complaining and Fraser being the annoying voice of reason.

     Ray sipped his coffee gratefully. “How much coffee have we got left?”

     Fraser was rummaging in the box he kept his clothes in. “About five pounds from the supplies we brought from Carey's store,” he said over his shoulder. “I just opened a new bag.”

     “Oh. About a month's worth, then. I keep telling you, Fraser, you don't want to know me in the morning without coffee.”

     Fraser found what he was looking for and settled into the chair. “Oh, I don't think so, Ray. I've think I've got a pretty good picture of what you're really like already,” and he looked up with that twitch to his mouth again.

     “Oh, gee, thanks. Still... Well, we'll just have to find some more. Damned if I'm going to try kinnykinny or whatever it is grows locally.”

     Fraser was busy with something in his lap and didn't answer.

     “Anyway, we'll be gone from here by then, probably,” Ray said, more to himself than Fraser. Trying out the words, trying to make his hopes come real. “It's almost like real spring here, and things have to be better back home and down south of here.” He sat for a few moments in moody contemplation, then looked up. “Fraser, what are you doing?”

     “Unraveling my old socks, Ray.”

     “O‑kaay, let me guess, this is part of some local spring celebration, isn't it? When the ice breaks up everybody stands on the river bank and throws shredded socks into the air?”

     “Of course not, Ray. You know, I sometimes wonder if you come up with these ideas just to annoy me. `Canadian' isn't synonymous with `eccentric,' you know.” Ray just looked at him. “I'm just saving the yarn.”

     “Oh.” That sounded reasonable. “Why?”

     “We may need it.” Just like Fraser, all practicality. Prudent, resourceful, frugal.

     “What would we need it for?” Ray persisted. “What possible use will we have for old, threadbare bits of sock yarn?”

     Fraser looked a little uncomfortable. “Well, it can come in handy for darning socks.”

     “What socks? You're unraveling them.”

     “And re‑knitting.”

     “Do you know how to knit?”

     “Ah, no. Do you?”

     “Don't change the subject. So when are you going to re-knit those socks you're taking apart? Why save the yarn?”

     All amusement left Fraser's face. “Because things have changed, Ray.”

     “No, they haven't,” Ray contradicted automatically. “You're just exactly the same, and still the most annoying man in the world.”

     Fraser just gave him a sad look. “The world's a lot smaller than it was.”

     “I don't believe that. We don't know for sure because we're stuck here in a frozen backwater that nobody cares about coming to check on.” Ray could hear his voice getting louder, trying to drown out the doubt that grew with Fraser's silence.

     “We're going to leave here, Fraser. We're going to find out what's happened in the rest of the country and we're going to find someplace safe and civilized and then go home. We are going to go home to a place that has coffee and socks and indoor plumbing. We are not going to need to save worn‑out socks!”

     “And what if we can't do that?”

     It was the old argument between them, the one they had been thrashing out, off and on, all winter. “Well, we can't stay here, Fraser. Look at this place. We've got to go somewhere better suited.”

     “I don't know, Ray. There are worse places.”

     “Oh? Name three.”

     Fraser just looked at him, and Ray repented the facetiousness. “Yeah, okay, sure it could be worse, but sitting around here waiting for god knows what is going to make it worse.”

     Fraser sighed. “I belong here, Ray,” he said simply.

     “Right. And I don't. So I have to go home. You're in your element. All this Sergeant Preston stuff must be what good little Mounties dream of. It's not like you have any real family you need to take care of.”

     Fraser stiffened slightly, just enough for Ray to tell that the wisecrack had hurt. “Aw, I'm sorry, Benny. That was dumb of me. Forget I said it.”

     “Ray, I love your family too. There are people I love in Chicago . But we can't go back. Seriously. I don't think we have the supplies to make it.”

     “We'll find stuff,” Ray said, but he knew he was being obstinate.

     “Ray, you can't do this.”

     “Do what?”

     Fraser's strong fingers were still picking at the sock in his hands, little jerks as each row unraveled, but his eyes were fixed on Ray. “You have to be here. You have to be now. You have to take care of the living, and you have to be alive to do that, and you can't survive in the North if you keep thinking it's something it's not.”

     “I know what it is. It's cold, and barren, and full of trees and annoying animals, and you have to scrape the bottom of every barrel to get enough to get by on. I'm a survivor, Fraser, and I'm not stupid. I just don't believe that we have to stay here living like hippies when there's a possibility that civilization is not dead!”

     Someone knocked again, derailing Fraser's reply. Ray looked at the door, the length of the cabin elongating suddenly. Sighing, he pushed the covers aside.

     “I'll get that, Ray.” Fraser stepped quickly over to the door and cracked it open. Susan's voice boomed into Ray's exhaustion. “Hey, guys, we've got a problem at the washhouse. Looks like the ice has heaved the well pipes.”

     Fraser nodded and immediately turned to put his boots back on. Ray flopped back down on the bed with a thump of disgust.

     “I don't believe this¼” Ray moaned.

     “Aren't you coming, Ray?” Fraser fumbled with the laces of his boots. Ray sternly refused to be moved.

     “Let someone else help out on this one, I already did my good deed for today.”

     Fraser nodded silently, tucking his pants into the boots. His face went quiet and still. “I heard about what Alain did. I ran into Istas walking him back to his cabin. We've actually been fortunate that there haven't been more like him. It's a good thing you were there.”

     “Thanks, Fraser,” Ray muttered as he hauled on his pullover. “That is so encouraging, knowing that we're the only ones around here capable of dealing with psychos.” Ray sighed as he rose from the warm bed. “I guess I just don't understand why we always get stuck with everything.”

     Susan poked her head around the door. “You guys decent yet? Even if you're not, you better get the hell over there. Greg Nelson has started to organize.” She was a tall woman with wavy brown hair that fell to her shoulders. Her hands were constantly in motion and her fingernails worn and splintered with hard work. She had come to the Yukon ten years ago following her boyfriend. He had quit after one winter. Susan stayed and spent her time picking up odd jobs at fisheries in the salmon season and plumbing during the off seasons.

     Seeing they were finally moving, Susan nodded and withdrew, stomping her way back down the path with Fraser close on her heels.

     By the time Ray had followed Fraser to the pump house he was tired and cold and wet and muddy and deeply depressed. Somewhere between the well pump and the river valve, just outside the old washhouse that held the water storage tank, the main water supply line had burst. A small mud geyser was boiling over and spreading freezing water into the rotten snowdrifts that dotted the open ground running down to the river. Almost everyone in the small settlement had come out to look at the mess. Half of them were running around pointlessly under the direction of a hefty middle‑aged man who was, bizarrely, wearing sunglasses and shorts, and half of them were standing around looking deeply thoughtful. Great help either group is, Ray thought. Me and Fraser included. We're just part of the standing‑around group.

     The settlement's water supply was obtained from a combination of well water and intake from the river. Keeping the pump generator going had been first priority all winter for their gasoline supplies. If it had failed then they would have to melt snow or haul buckets, and now, Ray thought savagely, some know‑it‑all bozo had gone and wrecked the whole contraption by turning on the river pump, even though the line was still frozen. I will not think about what will happen if we don't get more fuel for the generators. If we can't fix it then goodbye running water, it's back to buckets from the river, boiling your own water, and god knows what diseases.

     Mud, icy mud, icy water, more mud. Jeez, you'd think nobody here had ever seen indoor plumbing before. Brian at least had a pipe wrench and length for cap, though he didn't seem to know exactly what to do with it. He started toward the location of the break, but when he sank knee deep into the mud he just stopped.

     One of the bystanders detached from the group and made her way over to Fraser and Ray. She was slightly stooped and her hair was gray, but Ray thought that Naomi had only yielded the barest minimum to age, and that probably after a mean fight. She addressed them directly, somehow managing to look both of them straight in the eye. She reminded Ray way too much of the sisters back in school, making him feel that he was responsible for things he hadn't even thought of yet. Why doesn't she go dump on the Nelsons? We're just tourists stuck here, same as them.

     “There are spare fittings for the water system in the back of my garage,” Naomi said without preamble. “I asked the construction crew to leave us what they didn't need.”

     “Why, is this what usually happens every spring?”

     “No, it hasn't happened before. We just put in the central water source last year. The engineer from Whitehorse swore that the intake pipes were deep enough that no break‑up ice could touch them.”

     “Government man, I'll bet.”

     She stopped and looked expressionlessly at the growing pool of icy mud. They all did. “Things like this are bound to happen.” She smiled suddenly, big amusement, and then it was gone. Ray was reminded of Fraser, and sure enough, he had that faint twitch of his lips. Great, Ray thought, that's all I need right now, more of that knock-'em-dead Canadian humor.

     “I'll go with you and see what we can use. Ray?”

     “Nah, I'm going to try and get the valve shut off. I suppose it's too much to hope for that there's a plan of the water system somewhere?”

     “There might be,” said Naomi, and she and Fraser shared another of those looks.

     And he thought he'd been depressed before. Ray started off down to the river, collecting Istas and Danny along the way.

     When they got to the riverbank, ice was building up against the valve platform. Words failed him. Which was a good thing, because he would have wasted a lot of energy expressing them and he needed every bit to work the valve. It took all the strength of the three of them together to get it turned off, after they had improvised a lever to work against the resistance in the slowly deforming valve stem.

     They trudged back to the pump house. Fraser was there with Nodin and Susan, laying out lengths of iron pipe.

     Their course of action was clear. Dig out the break and fix it. There was still water in the tank. Then figure out a way to deal with that ice jam at the valve platform. Ray didn't know much about ice. Fraser did not look happy when he told him about the jam.

     “Didn't anybody plan for ice jams? Everybody's been telling me for months just how spectacularly destructive they can be, and nobody thought about it?”

     It wasn't all that different from the time the water main blew out between the main line in the street and the house. Except the volume was about ten times greater and there was no easy way to shut off the flow from the river. Ray's old man had stood on the sidewalk that time, screaming at the city water crew, the plumber, the neighbors, and Ray, while Maria and Franny had made boats to float down the flood in the gutter, and Ray had grabbed some old bricks and boards and channeled the flow away from the basement windows, across the front yard, and down the driveway to the street.

     God, that memory hurt. No one to laugh with about it any more, no one who remembered with him.

     By yelling only a little bit Ray got most of the bystanders to grab a shovel and start digging out the break. It was miserable work handling shovels full of mud and slush.

     “Where do you want us to put the slush?” Greg asked.

     “Hunh? Put it where it won't get in the way.”

     Greg looked vaguely around at the well-trodden area.

     “Put it where it won't melt into the hole. There,” Ray pointed, where Brian was dumping it.

     Greg Nelson was a nice enough guy, probably, maybe, in his place, wherever that was. Taking a long trip in an RV up the Alcan highway from Boulder with his family, wife Debbie and two teenagers. Wife had the sense to refuse to move from their campsite when the news of the plague came, and they all showed up here a month later. Greg wanted to know first thing what everybody did in the real world, in order to maximize the human potential, he said. Naomi finally told him to shut up one day and Ray had silently cheered.

     Susan was the only person who had actual plumbing experience. “Look, you don't do it that way, because then this won't work. See?” Earnest faces nodded and everyone carefully began modeling themselves on Susan's actions. Geez, can't anybody here think for themselves? Ray wondered. Some of them, probably not. I probably wouldn't do so well if I didn't have Fraser pointing out little things to me, if I hadn't spent a few summers up at the cabin. They weren't made to be self‑sufficient. Nobody is, not really. But that thought was too faint and was swallowed up in the mud.

     The umpteenth time Greg came up to him to ask which direction the threads went and shouldn't they use plumber's tape (not that they had any) or solder (ditto) and shouldn't they wait and go scrounge for them, and why didn't this pipe wrench fit, he really needed a different size, and was Ray sure the broken heat tape was safe, Ray had had it. “Look, why are you asking me?” Greg looked taken aback. “I don't know anything about well plumbing.”

     “But I thought you were, uh, uh¼

     “You're some kind of manager, right? Well, you go manage. I'm just a cop. You see any kind of crime, call me.” And Ray stomped off into the well house to get the hell away from everybody.

     Fraser had shut down the tank intake line and was working on wrenching off a capped valve on the tank. From the amount of effort he was putting into it and the lack of apparent progress, the installation guys must have used a hydraulic wrench to close it. The futility of it all lit Ray's anger again.

     “Fraser, I swear this is it. I don't know what more proof you want that we need to get out of here. I don't know a damn thing about what we're doing. I don't know why we're even here, and I am not going to sit here and wait for some Canadian bureaucrat to finally show up and bail us out.”

     Fraser gave up on the cap for the moment and sat down on an upturned bucket. He let the wrench drop and flexed his hand, rubbing the strain out of the tendons. He was sweating even in the cold, and his cheeks were flushed with exertion. Ray found another bucket, flipped it over, and sat down next to Fraser. He only then realized that he was soaked nearly to the hip with icy, gritty mud, and his gloves were so sodden as to be useless. What a pair.

     “We're not doing any good here babysitting a bunch of tourists who can't find their ass in a hole in the ground, and locals who know more about living in the Yukon than we do. And if we do stay here, Fraser, they're going to work you to death. And me too.”

     “Somebody has to lead, Ray. To be visible and available, and point in roughly the right direction in a crisis. You know that. It's why people listen to police officers. Even if they think you're wrong, it makes people feel secure enough to begin to think for themselves.”

     “I don't think this bunch will ever learn to think for themselves.”

     “Then we have to stay. We're all they have.”

     “That's bullshit. We're not indispensable.”

     “And what if they are all that we have?”

     “Well, they're not, so you'll have to come up with a better reason.”

     Fraser got a strange look on his face, but before he could speak Ray burst out, “So help me God, Fraser, if you start telling me an Inuit story I'm gonna brain you with this piece of pipe!”

     That actually made Fraser smile. “No, it wasn't an Inuit story, Ray.”

     “Good. I'm too tired to fight over this again.” Ray pried himself up off his bucket and gave a hand to Fraser to pull him up. “I just want to get this fixed before something else breaks down.”

     It took the rest of the day to fix the break. By sunset the only thing left was to figure out how to get the river intake bypassed, and the layouts for the initial design were still back in Naomi's garage. Ray went off to take a look at them, glad to stretch his legs a bit at last.

     Glancing at the gathering dark, he walked to her cabin. Naomi's cabin had been here before the rest of the settlement had been built, and was furthest away from the road. There was a footpath shortcut from the river and Ray took that way, instead of the track that approached it from the muddy flat.

     It was funny how much he didn't like the dusk anymore. The sky overhead was still deeply blue, and the dark seemed to rise up from among the trees. The footpath was more uneven and overgrown than it ought to be. The stubby dead twigs of the spruces snapped as he passed, too loud in his ears. The gray knobby trunks seemed deliberately to block his way. Ray felt intensely stupid for going this way without some kind of light, and more stupid for the unease that crept between his shoulder blades. He was only a hundred yards from the settlement, but the world was reduced to cold, and dark, and rustling shadows tracing his movement just beyond his range of sight.

     And then the footpath dodged a clump of willows, and there was the light in the window of Naomi's cabin.

     He knocked politely, restraining the urge to pound for admittance, and a voice called from inside, “Come in.” Naomi was sitting by her stove, peeling a few wrinkled potatoes. They were the last they'd see unless they managed to seed some this spring.

     Naomi looked quizzically at Ray, then down at his feet. Hastily, he stepped back onto the porch and pulled off his mud‑caked shoes and then stepped back inside.

     “Hi, Naomi, how's it going?”

     “Fine, Ray.” She peeled another strip then let it fall into the compost bucket at her feet.

     Ray waited but Naomi kept working. His mother's hair had been snow white, but she had started to dye it after her friends had told her she looked old. Ray doubted any of Naomi's friends would have dared comment on her hair color.

     “Sorry to bother you, but we're going to need the plans for the well pump after all.”

     “Oh, of course. They're in one of those boxes over there by the window. Can't remember which one.”

     She placed a peeled potato in the bowl next to her. The paring knife flashed briefly in the light of the lamp.

     The boxes were grimy and had cobwebs trailing from the rotting cardboard. Ray thought of offering to do the potato peeling if Naomi would just find the damn plans. But the gleam of the knife stopped him short. On second glance, it wasn't a paring knife. More like a boning blade.

     “Right. Okay, I'd better get on with it while I can see what I'm doing.”

     “Well, make yourself useful before you go. Shove the couch back under the window. It sticks out too far into the middle of the room.”

     Naomi pointed to the corner with her blade. The couch looked perfectly fine where it was. It was covered in a multi‑colored knitted blanket. Ray leaned closer and saw that a film of fine gray hair had settled over the wool. Wolf hair. He looked suspiciously around but Diefenbaker was nowhere in sight. Somehow it didn't surprise him the two would hit it off. They were similar—gray-haired, opinionated, and certain they were the center of the world.

     He shoved experimentally against the couch and nearly bounced back. The thing felt like it was made of concrete. His stocking feet slipped on the wood floor and he tried pulling the sofa in the opposite direction.

     As he was puzzling over the sofa's lack of movement, Naomi pointed out helpfully, “My husband used to slip it on a rug and then slide the rug across the floor.” No one could even remember Naomi's husband, but Ray was certain he had not died of natural causes. “So have you been reading the Inuit storybook Ussak lent you?”

     Ray tried looking under a pile of blankets for a throw rug, but only found a bag of rags. “No. I mean yes, I just haven't finished it.” Shit, he thought. I hoped she'd forgotten. He caught sight of the tail end of something woven underneath the coffee table and knelt down.

     “Should've finished it by now. Was written for third graders.”

     Bright red and yellow magazines spilled over the floor. He began stacking them off to the side so he could reach the rug.

     “Well, never mind. They never put the best stories in there. Wouldn't dare, too afraid of their real heritage. Gotta live in a white man's world, or at least in a white-flavored world. Soon you start to even like Wonder Bread.” She snorted and tossed another potato into the bowl. Ray wondered who the hell she could be cooking for. She lived alone.

     The magazine pile slid again, spilling Popular Mechanics and National Geographic into a fan of slick paper. They must have been twenty years old—yellowing water stains wrinkling the covers.

     “Well, my favorite is the one called—Itovitaggi. The young mother who faces her first famine. She has one child—her first born—and he has only reached two years...”

     Ray nodded politely. Oh God, what is it with Canadians and Inuit stories? With the magazines out of the way he began inching the coffee table off the rug. A pile of papers slid off the coffee table and he snatched them before they could cover the magazine pile.

     “But food is scarce and the village decides to ration. They choose her son to receive half‑rations. He is the only child under six. When he dies, they sing a song to honor her sacrifice. The youngest can always be reborn—but if grown men and women can live to the next season, they can create more life and hunt to feed the rest.”

     He tossed the papers into a corner, not caring where they landed. Savagely he jerked the rug loose and stood, allowing it to trail behind him. “That's a load of crap, Naomi,” he said and resisted the urge to sneeze. Dust and short gray hairs floated through the room.

     “Really?” Naomi's eyes were cold. “I thought the same thing when I tasted my first Big Mac.”

     Ray stifled the urge to drop the rug and walk out of the cabin. Smiling tightly, he lifted one sofa leg and crammed the edge of the rug under the sofa. The leg skidded and pinched his hand. Swearing, he sat down abruptly.

     Naomi watched him closely, her hands still, the knife balanced loosely between her wrinkled fingers. Suddenly breathless, he snapped his mouth shut. Naomi leaned forward, her face shadowed. The sun had set and the room had moved past gray into a darkening blue. Only her eyes glittered, flicking back and forth like black pebbles in her small face. Uneasy, Ray rolled to his knees. The damn sofa could wait.

     “I think the sofa can wait,” her voice said tersely. Ray jumped awkwardly to his feet, heart pounding. She had moved in the dark, and was standing next to the kitchen table. The gas lamp flared weakly and light fluttered across the fully darkened room.

     Ray blinked rapidly, wondering how she'd known what he was thinking. This was getting too creepy. Swallowing past the lump, he edged toward the door.

     “But, Ray, you're not right about Fraser.” She seemed smaller and more bird-like in the dim light. The door slid further into the distance. He felt over-warm.

     “What do you mean? What's not right?”

     He panted, startled to feel the knob to the cabin door sliding under his hand. One turn, that was all he'd need.

     Naomi sighed and he felt a feather soft touch brush past his face. The cool night air was waiting for him on the other side. Just one more turn. “Son, you act like Fraser has all the answers. Well, he doesn't.”

     The door cracked open, and Ray focused on the solidity of the metal knob, its connection to the door, and the escape that lay beyond. But Naomi's voice held him back. Breathing heavily, he peered over his shoulder like a child squinting at something he couldn't bear to see.

     “You want to know what Fraser's real fear is?” Her voice had tightened, each word exploding into the room like a sharp caw. “I think he's afraid you won't make it here. A man can lose only so much before he loses himself.” The doorknob turned and he lurched down the steps. He stumbled into the dark, half blinded by the hammering of his heart.

     “What the hell, what the hell,” he heard himself mutter. The air cleared his head enough for him to realize he had left his shoes on the porch. His mouth was dry. Overhead, the stars gleamed faintly. Steeling himself, he faced the cabin. The kitchen light glowed warmly and the door was firmly shut. Nothing sinister here. Nothing that could explain the hammering in his chest, the tang of sweat. As he grabbed his boots, he decided someone else could hunt for the plans tomorrow.

     He returned to the cabin and peeled off his clothes. Too tired to even fold them, he left them in the middle of the floor in a muddy heap. The stove was alight, but there was no sign of Fraser. This time the bed felt warm, not clammy, and he crashed gratefully into the middle of it, curled up, and fell asleep like the stunned.

     He awoke in the dark to the knowledge that Fraser was lying next to him. His presence was comforting in a way that Ray had given up trying to explain to himself, beyond the reassurance of warmth and life. He rolled over, trying to get himself a little more room without waking Fraser, and shuddering at the contact of the cold sheet. Fraser stirred, and shifted, and laid his hand on Ray's shoulder, pulling him back into shared warmth.

     When he next awoke, a weak light was beginning to wash the opposite wall of the cabin. Ray got up carefully and hunted silently for his clothes. A fresh pair of jeans and a flannel shirt sat on the dining‑room chair. Sighing, he put on Fraser's peace offering and glanced back at him, noticing without surprise how tired he looked, even in the relaxation of sleep. Ray stepped out into the chill dawn, lacing up his boots and heading off to take advantage of the next hour or so.

     Danny's cabin had been built early on in the life of the village. The crudeness of its décor was made up for by the fact that it was unusually large—it even had a small workshop attached to the back.

     Danny looked up as he slipped through the door and greeted him. “Glad you could make it. Sleep well?”

     “Hmmm,” Ray grumped and pulled up a chair. “Now that Fraser's back, maybe someone else will take the graveyard shift. At least until the mud dries up and the pipes stop bursting.” His stomach growled and he thought hopefully of breakfast.

     Danny shook his head and handed the wires to Ray. “There'll always be something else, Ray. Here, take this. I'll see if Steph has something extra left over.”

     Ray nodded his thanks and gingerly angled the shortwave radio toward the light. Wire the scrounged receiver in place, connect up the power source, and maybe this one would work. It hadn't been easy cannibalizing the spare parts from the bits that Alain had left behind. There'd been only two shortwave radios in the camp. Some of the surrounding homesteads had had radios, but radio manufacturers had stubbornly refused to standardize. However, Danny had done some ham radio fiddling in his youth and Ray was willing to experiment endlessly with parts and connections.

     Once the decision had been made, finding the time to repair the radio in secret had been the hardest task. Ray and Danny had decided to surprise the village on Break‑up Day, which meant they spent most of their time cramped in the small workshed.

     Ray held the copper wires steady and squinted into the dim light. “Don't slip,” Danny interrupted cheerfully from the doorway. In the background, Ray could hear Ussak and Victor shouting as they ran out the front of the cabin.

     “Shit,” Ray swore, biting his lip in frustration. “If I slip, it'll be you who treks out into the wilderness and finds another one.” Deftly, he twisted the wires in place for a few more seconds and then pulled back to analyze his handiwork.

     “It looks fine, Ray,” Danny answered. His hands full, he kicked the door shut. The slamming cut off Victor's shouting. “And eat something, will you? You're making me nervous with all that grumbling.”

     “My stomach or my mouth?” Ray answered wryly, but pushed back and reached for the plate. The rice dish was simple, but it set off another round of noisy complaint from his stomach.

     Danny shook his head and a companionable silence fell. A sheet of window glass lay against the far wall, picking up the rising sun and casting a golden shadow across Danny's face. Steph had cut his hair short and it stood up ragged like stubble in a cornfield.

     Ray swallowed the last bite and put the plate down. “Thanks. Tell Steph I appreciate the meal.”

     “You know,” Danny smiled, “she makes extra for you and Fraser. Just in case you get stuck hauling broken pipe or wading through mud. Makes her feel useful.”

     “She's raising two kids not her own, keeping us fed, and learning how to fix snowmobiles, and thinks she's not being useful?” Ray retorted with amusement. Steph reminded him of his mother—without the constant nagging. Danny was lucky.

     “Well, you try telling her that. She won't listen to me.” Danny wrinkled his face in thought. “She likes you. And Fraser.” Another pause fell, while Ray positioned the battery bay for the next step.

     “Almost there,” Ray muttered and gripped his wrist to hold his right hand steady. Without the battery connections in place, there'd be no power. Unless they rigged something from the generator. Which would take at least another week, the rate things were going.

     “I mean,” Danny continued, “there's something about Fraser. I've never known anyone like him before.”

     Ray wriggled the wires, hoping Danny would focus on what he was doing. “What do you expect? He's a Mountie.” He watched narrowly as Danny released the pin and held his breath.

     “No, that's not it. I've seen a lot of Mounties, but he's really¼reassuring.”

     A wave of exasperation swept over Ray. Sighing, he tried to focus on what Danny was saying. “So he's reassuring. He's also irritating. You haven't lived until you've seen him tasting mud.” He peered at the radio for a minute. “Got it!” he exclaimed. “Damn, that was tricky.”

     Ray slipped his hands out from under the radio and wiped his damp palms on his pants. Give it a few more minutes and they could pop in the batteries for testing.

     Danny placed the iron on the bench and glanced at Ray. “Well,” he said, clearing his throat, “all I know is that you're now officially `partners.'”

     “Fraser and I are partners. We've been partners for years. What are you talking about?”

     Danny's eyes hovered between amusement and soberness. “You survived a winter together in a cabin and not only didn't shoot each other, you remained friends. In the gold‑rush days here that was taken as a sign that the partnership could survive anything.”

     Ray shook his head. “Oh, I don't know. I have to say that I was sorely tempted a few times.” But he felt the corner of his mouth twitch into a smile.

     “Well, whatever the two of you have together, it shows. We're damn lucky to have both of you here.” Amusement had been replaced by something more serious. Ray shifted uncomfortably.

     “Look, Danny, you know we're moving on.” Danny nodded. “If you want, you're welcome to come. It'll be a hard trek, but I can talk to Fraser and we can work out the logistics.”

     “Thanks, Ray. But I'll have to talk it over with Steph. She doesn't want to upset the kids too much. Them having lost their parents so recently and all.” He paused again. “There's just been so much happening lately. Sometimes I don't know if we're coming or going. I guess that's what I was getting at.”

     Ray lifted the batteries and slipped them into the bays. “Getting at what?” he asked absently.

     “About Fraser. It's like he's a magnet always pointing north. You know? Or like those directional finders that they use in the fog on the seas.”

     Ray flipped the switch and heard the soft rustle of static fill the air. Both men fell silent for a few moments, listening to the hissing, striving to shape words out of the formless sounds. But the bands were quiet, and after a few rotations, Ray switched off the power.

     “Well, you can't expect to pick up a broadcast the first try,” Ray explained. “Besides, if we keep running it, the kids will hear. And then where'll be the surprise?”

     Danny nodded somewhat disappointedly. Together they carefully covered the radio with a cloth and cleaned up the workbench. Danny pressed him to stay, but Ray declined. As much as he liked Danny, sometimes he needed to get away from him, from his doubts, his fears, and his need for reassurance. Never mind that these were the same feelings that would creep into Ray's mind as he lay in the dark, listening to the sound of Fraser's soft breathing and the gentle movements of the sleeper beside him. Like last night, as he fell asleep in the empty room, hearing the silent radio static that swept him into his unremembered dreams.


On To Chapter Three


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