Shin waved at them from her seat atop a rocky spur slightly above their shelter. She had her trench knife on her hip and her binoculars in her uninjured paw. “Hi. What’s going on?”
Luck of the Dragon: Cold Comfort
© 2010 by Walter D. Reimer
(Songmark and characters courtesy of Simon Barber. Thanks!)
“We had a bit o’ fun, while ye were asleep,” Brigit laughed as she hefted her armload. She recounted what had happened, and Shin chuckled.
“Aw, I think they were scared of us,” the red panda said with a smirk. She closed the binoculars with a snap and transferred them to her left paw. Grasping things was about all it was good for – at least for now. “You shouldn’t have left me behind.”
“You needed sleep,” Tatiana said.
“Besides, you’re injured,” Liberty added. “If it came to a fight – “
“Oh, you think I can’t defend myself?” Shin clambered down from her perch. “Care to try me, Lib?”
“Armed, or paw-to-paw?”
“Maybe later,” Brigit said. “Right now let’s get this wood inside an’ feed up th’ fire. A bit o’ warmth’d be welcome, don’t ye think?”
“Sounds sensible to me,” Shin said. She was well-bundled up.
They moved the wood into the shelter and added some to the fire. Tatiana tended the flames while Liberty collected some snow to melt for water and Brigit brought Shin up to date.
“So, they just ran off, huh? Nice of them to leave us some firewood.”
“So it was,” the Irish girl agreed. “How are ye feelin,’ Shin?”
The red panda shrugged with her good shoulder. “Not as bad,” she replied. “Some sleep helped. I guess I have a hard head – and no, Lib, it’s not made of concrete,” she added before the New Havenite could open her muzzle.
Liberty smirked. “It is pretty obvious.”
Shin’s lips curled back as she crested. “Revisionist.”
“Stop this,” Tatiana said as Liberty bristled. “If you two start trading insults, you’ll start fighting, and we can’t have that here.” She paused. “I say we rest up a bit.”
“Some exercise might do us some good,” Brigit added her thoughts on the matter. “If anything it’ll give us an appetite.”
“I’m hoping that the weather holds,” Tatiana said as she accepted a cup of water from Liberty. “I don’t know about you three, but I want off this rock.”
“I’m with you, Tatiana,” Shin said. “I want a bath – “
“You could use one,” Liberty offered.
“We all could,” the red panda riposted with a grin. “And I want Fang. He’s not going to get much sleep when I get home, I’ll tell you that.”
“My friend Michael’ll be gettin’ his feathers ruffled, right enough,” Brigit said, her tail wagging at a memory. “Tatiana, ye missin’ yer friend?”
“My wife, you mean.”
The Irish girl nodded. “Yeah.”
“Da. I miss her awfully.” The sable’s reply was terse, but she smiled as she spoke. “Liberty?”
“Oh, come on Lib,” Shin said. “We know that you’ve been seeing a lot of that guy from Main Island.”
“Spying on me, Shin?”
“Never mind about him,” Brigit said. “Tell us about yer beau in New Haven, Lib.”
The sudden change caught the half-coyote off guard long enough for her to look shocked, then she blushed fiercely as the others started to laugh. Recovering her composure she asked, “What makes you think I have one?”
“Yer blush, fer starters.”
“The look on your face after you saw Mrs. Oelabe,” Shin said, “when you got back.”
The canine glowered at her. “Was it that obvious?”
Brigit nodded. “Aye, it was. What’s his name?”
A pause. “Dan.”
A brief, fond smile flickered across Liberty’s muzzle. “Yes.”
The other girls grinned. “I’ll bet he’ll be in for a sleepless night when you get back home, huh?” Shin asked.
Liberty had no fox blood in her, but her expression grew sly. “Maybe.”
All four laughed now.
“We have about two hours before sundown,” Tatiana said, glancing outside. “Shall we go out and exercise?”
Liberty’s booted feet scraped through the snow as she shifted her stance, the knife in her paw held at the ready to her side. Facing her, Shin held her weapon close to her chest, the blade pointing downward and keeping her injured left side angled slightly away from the half-coyote.
Brigit and Tatiana stood to either side at a respectful distance as referees. They had just finished their own exercises, and were still puffing. Breath misted in the air briefly before being whipped away on the wind.
Liberty feinted, then dodged to her right.
Shin parried, swiveling to keep her eyes on the canine as the two circled. Her arm shot out, the knife flicking up at Liberty’s shoulder as she evaded the red panda’s blow.
All of them had very carefully secured the sheathes on their knives, mindful to avoid injuries that could cost them points if the Tutors found out about it.
Still, the exercise was in earnest.
Liberty pivoted, only to catch a bootheel against the side of her left thigh. She hissed and backed away one limping step, recovered, and came at Shin again. Her blade caught against the Chinese girl’s and Liberty closed the distance, driving a knee into Shin’s stomach.
Shin avoided most of the blow by deliberately falling backward, her banded tail flicking up and showering Liberty with snow.
The New Havenite paused, breathing hard. “You were right.”
“Yeah. You’re just as good with one arm missing,” and the canine stuck out a paw to help Shin up. “You all right?”
“Not too bad,” and a gust ruffled her fur.
All four turned to look at the sky. “Time ta take it inside, I’m thinkin’,” Brigit judged.
“Sensible,” Tatiana added.
Notebook, Brigit Mulvaney
10 – XII – 1937:
Storm for two days now. Bitter cold, snow, freezing rain, wind.
I’m tired. Tired of the cold, the damp, the smell.
I’m tired of fish.
Notebook, Wo Shin (translation)
December 12, 1937:
Cold. Maybe five below. My fur’s supposed to be thick enough, but I’m still cold.
Tatiana, the dorm leader, studied the group’s dwindling supply of food. The storm had lasted over two days, making it impossible to go out and gather in any fish other than the stocks they had accumulated. Their supplies of crab log and dried fruit were also running low.
It disturbed her that she had been forced to count their stocks twice. If the cold was getting to her . . .
They had an ‘iron ration’ of dried meat and hardtack, but by common consent had refrained from touching it until hunger really started to set in.
At least, the Russian sable reflected, they still had enough firewood.
Outside, the fog had started to lift in patches, driven by the wind, and Liberty and Brigit had gone out roped together to forage a bit. Shin had insisted on helping, and was outside as well, secured to a lifeline and studying the horizon. They were scheduled for a pickup soon, depending on the weather.
Tatiana hoped that the weather had cleared faster at Ounalashka.
The previous night Liberty had proposed a motion that fish was fine food but she wished there was something else. The motion was carried unanimously, with Shin promising that as soon as they could get away from Songmark for a day she would treat them to dinner at “Anyplace you want – so long as it’s NOT fish.”
The sable poked her head out of the shelter opening. “Chto, Shin?”
The red panda was on her feet and waving to the east. “I might be crazy, but I think I see a boat approaching.” She put her binoculars to her eyes again before passing them to Tatiana. “Out in that direction,” and she pointed with her good arm. “Very vague – I might be seeing things.”
Tatiana squinted through the eyepieces. The fog was still an almost uniform grayish-white . . . but there was something moving. A stray gust, and she could see a silhouette . . .
She lowered the binoculars. “I think it’s them,” she said, and Shin stuck two fingers in her muzzle and gave a shrill whistle. In the distance they could hear Brigit and Liberty’s answering whistles as the setter and the half-coyote started back to them.
The boat sounded its horn, a low mournful note muffled by the fog. A pause, and it sounded a brief staccato.
Shin and Tatiana’s ears perked up.
The foghorn was playing the words Red Dorm? in Morse Code.
“You can whistle louder than me, Shin.”
The red panda took a breath and whistled Yes.
A Very Well was heard as the two canine members of Red Dorm jogged through the snow to the shelter. “Is that what I think it was?” Brigit asked.
“Da,” Tatiana said, a weary grin on her face. “We need to get ready.”
“Aye. Company’s comin.’”
The four watched, and after a few minutes a rowboat appeared out of the fog.
“They had a rowboat,” Shin muttered. “We didn’t have to swim ashore.”
“Quiet,” Liberty growled. “If they hear you, they’ll turn around and make us swim out to them.”
The red panda shut her muzzle as the boat grounded and Miss Devinski stepped out onto the shore. “Are any of you injured?” the canine asked.
“I am, Ma’am,” Shin replied. She was immediately the subject of a hard, searching glare from the Labrador. “Dislocated left shoulder, bruised ribs, concussion.”
“Less than a week ago.”
“Who reduced the dislocation?”
“I did, Ma’am.” Brigit raised a paw, and at Devinski’s nod explained how it had been done.
When she was finished, the tutor nodded once. “How?”
The Chinese girl blushed. “I slipped and fell, Ma’am,” and she recounted what had happened.
“Hmm. You’ll be examined by the doctor when we get to Ounalashka. For now, show me your encampment and report,” Devinski said briskly, and the four younger women escorted her up the slope to their shelter.
She inspected the small living area. “Where did you get the wood for the fire?”
The others glanced at each other. Liberty replied, “There was an abandoned shack on the south side of the island, Miss Devinski.”
Shin managed to keep the surprised expression off her face. While the statement was true enough, it wasn’t like Liberty to stretch the truth even that far. The red panda guessed that the New Havenite was either very tired or had been learning from her fellows.
Devinski’s nose wrinkled at one point. “Shin?”
“Is that the stuffing in your sleeping bag I’m smelling?”
Shin blushed. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“It seems you’ve learned a valuable lesson. Well, all four of you are still alive. Break camp and get packed – not you, Shin,” the canine said sternly. “You’re injured.”
The others turned and looked at Shin, and the red panda felt a sudden lump in her throat. It was easy, as she was very tired and her defenses were low.
“Miss Devinski,” she said, managing to keep her voice level. “I must insist on helping my dorm pack up.”
“I am still alive,” the Chinese girl said in Mandarin, drawing herself up straight. “As long as I’m still alive, I can be useful.”
The canine regarded her for a long moment, then her mouth quirked in a slight smile. “Go,” she ordered in the same language, and Shin went to join her fellow students.
As the quartet squirmed around in the shelter, packing up their sleeping arrangements and backpacks, Brigit whispered, “Ye didn’t have ta, Shin.”
“If I didn’t - ”
Liberty nodded slowly. “You’d lose face.”
The red panda blinked.
They all did.
December 14, 1937:
Another storm kept the students at Ounalashka a further day. The lumber warehouse they had previously occupied was full, so the twenty young women were forced to camp in the open, near the seaplane dock.
According to a considerably battered and weather-beaten sign, the slip was named the Waat-Tzhappe Dock for the two furs who had first built it.
Shin rubbed her injured shoulder, feeling it throb as she shifted around in her sleeping bag. Red Dorm had taken the tarp that served as a door to their makeshift shelter and were using it as a canopy to keep the worst of the rain off. Frequent gusts made hanging onto it difficult.
After a quick trip to a doctor in the town she had been reassured to learn that the blow to her head hadn’t shaken anything loose, and her shoulder was mending. The doctor had put her in a sling with instructions to exercise the shoulder joint.
A glance at Miss Devinski had told Shin that she could expect quite a bit of that.
Compared to the other three dorms Red Dorm had been fortunate. One dorm had failed to find enough food to supplement what they had brought with them, with the result that they looked quite starved. After learning what had happened, another dorm had shared their iron ration with them out of charity.
That night they were awakened by the older canine blowing a whistle. “Pack up,” Devinski ordered, “and get the plane loaded. We’re leaving before the storm starts up again.”
The idea of heading back to Spontoon gave the twenty wet, muddy, exhausted and hungry women the motivation to get moving.