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18 June 2006
BY WALTER D. REIMER
The Woodcarver's Son
© 2006 by Walter D. Reimer
Ranua and the others spent the first three days of their second month, some of it virtually around the clock, learning about what they could and could not eat in the waters near Rain Island. The lessons were for the benefit of those furs who either were unfamiliar with the wildlife of the region, or were out of practice. Dried or freshly-caught examples were brought in to give everyone first-paw knowledge of the subject. There was also plenty of physical exercise to prepare them for the ten days they would be gone. Finally the thirty recruits were divided into six groups, again apparently at random.
February 4, 1937:
The island was one of the many small and uninhabited dots of land that made navigating the east coat of Rain Island a chore for even seasoned sailors. Many of the rocky islets were heavily forested, in some cases right down to where the land met the water. Bowsprit Island was one of the larger ones, about a quarter-mile square and some hundreds of yards away from the next-largest in the group, Mainsail Island. Fresh water could be found, although it could be slightly brackish depending on where one dug for it. Pine and cedar trees covered the island, and thick stands of bushes and ferns filled in the rest of the forest floor. Many of the rocks were slick with mosses and lichens, but there were edible plants and the waters around the island held abundant fish.
On the other paw, the climate added to the rather Spartan comforts of the island by providing cold, raw weather with frequent thick fogs and even rain.
Ranua tended the fire, coaxing it slowly so that it wouldn’t smother as he added fuel. He and four others had been dropped off early that morning, and the first order of business had been to get a fire started. They had a minimal amount of equipment, with only the clothes on their backs and their pea coats to keep out the moist chill. He repressed a shiver and added more wood to the flames.
“Hey, Milky,” and Ranua glanced up as a lynx walked over. “You got that fire started yet?”
Ranua’s ears twitched. Alan Davis was a Rain Islander, and the lynx had competed with the wirehair terrier for the best overall grade in the first month. Tying for the top score with the terrier had obviously irritated him, and he showed it by making fun of Ranua’s family name. He was a bit shorter than Ranua, but more heavily muscled from his former job in a lumber yard.
“Sure, Alan, it’s started,” he said, “but it’ll take some time. The wood around here’s mostly wet. If I try to add too much too quickly it’ll die.” He cocked his head as he looked up at the feline. “And it’s Milikonu, not ‘Milky.’”
“Yeah? Well, I’m freezing. Why didn’t you let Anutak try?” Anutak was a brown bear, also from Rain Island.
“Because she and Mary went to look for food over in that direction,” he said, waving a paw to the north. A canine ear dipped. “You’re supposed to be fishing.”
“Yeah, well, I fell in – which is why I’m asking you where the fire is, Milky,” the lynx growled as he stamped away. Ranua watched him go and shrugged, figuring that Alan’s temper would warm him up in short order.
After a few more minutes, the fire finally reached a point where he knew it wouldn’t go out, and he added a pair of small logs to it. He stood, brushing pine needles from his jumpsuit as the fifth member of their group walked up. “You got the fire started,” the horse remarked as he stuck his paws over it. “Good job.”
“Sorry it took so long, John,” Ranua said as he looked for a fallen branch to serve as a poker.
John Lone Pine waved the apology off. “I’m from up in Snoquamish,” the Tillamookan said. “If you let a fire go out up there, you’re in trouble. Practically everything’s damp up there,” and he chuckled to himself, as if recalling a private joke. “Any sign of the others?”
“Alan was just here,” the terrier told the taller fur. “He said that he fell in.”
“He’d better get over here and dry off, then,” and the horse raised his head, cupping his paws around his mouth. “Alan!” he shouted. “Ranua’s got the fire going!”
“About time,” came an answering call. The lynx stamped up to the fire, sat on a nearby rock and stuck his boots out toward the flames.
“Catch anything?” the horse asked.
“I said I fell in,” the lynx replied. “Scared the fish off for a while. I’ll go back and try again after I dry off a bit.”
The horse nodded, then paused as he sniffed the air. Alan and Ranua did the same, and all turned as the two women in their group stepped into view. “Good hunting?” Ranua asked.
Anutak nodded, the tall brown bear holding up a trio of skinned rabbits in one paw. Mary O’Neil, a yellow-furred Labrador, held a variety of mushrooms and pine nuts. “We won’t be able to eat much,” the bear said, “but we will eat.”
“I’ll go get some water,” Ranua said, getting a small pot from their gear before heading inland.
Cut up into small pieces, the rabbit and the mushrooms made a good stew that satisfied all five of them, with the pine nuts as a dessert. Ranua sat back after eating his portion, drawing his heavy coat a bit more snugly around himself. Mary saw this and asked, “Cold, Ranua?”
“A little, Mary,” he replied. “It’s the damp, I think. I’ll get over it.”
“Good, so you go fishing for supper,” Alan said.
The lynx walked off into the woods and Anutak remarked, “He seems to have a chip on his shoulder.”
Lone Pine snorted. “More like two.”
Ranua shrugged. “He doesn’t like coming in second, or even tying. I don’t really blame him, I guess.”
“That’s a very evenpawed attitude, Ranua,” Mary observed, using her fingers to comb out a tangle in her headfur.
“It’s the way I was taught,” the terrier replied. “You get a lot of people passing through the Spontoons, so you have to be tolerant.” He carefully refrained from telling them about the ceremony that most Spontoonies celebrated after the tourists had all left, which was designed to let the natives work through their anger at being patronized by overbearing Euros.
Just then Alan came back with his fishing gear and tossed the small packet to Ranua. “Here, Milky, let’s see how you islanders do it.” He visibly suppressed a smirk and sat down, ignoring the glares from the other three furs.
Ranua looked at the lynx, then at the fishing gear lying at his feet. He reached down and picked up the packet. “I’ll be glad to, Alan. See you all later.” He stood and walked off toward the shore.
After perhaps an hour he had managed to walk all the way around the island, looking at the currents and carefully watching for the signs of fish jumping. When he thought that he’d found a likely place, he baited a hook and threw it, then settled down to wait.
The sun soon burned off the fog, and though it was still damp it warmed up enough for all five to shed their jackets. Ranua spread his coat out on the rocks and sat on it as he watched his line.
“Where’s Ranua?” Anutak asked a few hours later as she set a pan of water on for dinner. Alan sat tending the fire, and he poked at it, sending up a small cloud of sparks.
“Don’t know,” the lynx said. “Maybe he decided to swim to Canada.”
“Or maybe he didn’t,” Ranua said as he stepped into the little clearing. He was wearing his coat again, but he held three fat salmon and several trout in his paws.
“Where the hell did you find them?” Alan asked incredulously, his voice tinged with envy. The others listened as Ranua explained how he had found the right spot, and they agreed to try it themselves the next day.
As night fell the sky began to cloud over, and Ranua joined Lone Pine and Mary in a chanted prayer. Anutak merely knelt and prayed silently, while Alan busied himself with adding more wood to the fire. A shelter had been set up facing the fire, and leaf litter and ferns had been strewn to make sleeping a bit more comfortable.
While they would all have liked to sleep separately, the damp cold air forced them to huddle together for warmth. “Don’t get any ideas, Milky,” Alan hissed as he made room for Ranua.
“Don’t worry,” the Spontoonie assured the lynx. “I’m Tailfast – and you’re not my type, anyway.”
Nine days later Mary came running into the camp, startling the others as she gasped out, “They’re here!” While Lone Pine went to work putting the fire out, the others packed up their gear and headed for the shore.
A motorized launch was just reaching the rocks, and a deckpaw stepped out onto the shore to tie the little boat fast. Petty Officer Johansen stepped ashore as the group emerged from the trees and stood at attention.
The moose puffed on his pipe and made a show of counting first the group, then his fingers. “Vell, seems ye’re all still alive,” he remarked, laughing. “I don’t see no teeth marks, neither, so I’m t’hinkin’ ya all et good ‘nough. Show me yer camp, now.”
The group led the petty officer to where they had set up their fire and shelter, and stood by as Johansen examined the area with a critical air. “Vhere’d ya put de garbage, hah?” he asked.
“We dumped all of it into the latrine, Petty Officer,” Ranua said.
Johansen nodded, blowing a thin stream of smoke from his nostrils. “An’ whose idea vas dat?” he asked as he poked around their bivouac.
Ranua took a breath. “Mine, sir.”
“Vell, Mr. Milikonu, it’s a good idea. T’hrows an enemy off yer scent,” the moose said, and the terrier relaxed. Ranua tried not to notice the glare Alan gave him. “Okay, folks, get ta de boat, ve’re leavin,’” Johansen ordered.
The boat took them aboard a converted trawler that now served as a short-haul transport, and Ranua’s group was reunited with the rest of the recruits. Most looked like Ranua – fur unwashed and ungroomed, uniforms smudged and dirty and everyone looking a bit chilled from the raw weather. Most huddled around the ship’s ventilation ducts, warming their paws and trying to ignore the dense mixture of scents in the air.
Heads turned and ears perked as Johansen thundered, “At ease, demmit, my turn ta talk! Dat’s bedder,” he growled as the group stopped talking to each other. “Now, ya all vill get a piece o’ paper an’ a pencil from de qvartermaster, an’ I vant ya all to write down vhat ya did on yer islands, an’ vhich o’ yer group should’ve been made syndic. Go to it, an’ if ya ain’t done by six bells, ya do vit’out dinner!” There was a scramble for the quartermaster’s compartment.
When all of his charges had turned in their short essays and were being fed, Johansen took the papers to the petty officer’s wardroom. After having his own supper, he drew an extra mug of beer and joked with the other noncoms for a while about having to ‘baby-sit’ before settling down to look over the essays. It was part of his job that he disliked, because it forced him to wear his glasses. He put the bifocals on and ignored the occasional comment about his age as he read through each carefully, and noted which of each group had been thought of as leadership material. One group he snorted at, as all five of the furs had thought each other should have been chosen syndic.
When he got to the last group, he noted that Alan Davis had voted for himself, Ranua had chosen John Lone Pine, and the three others had all chosen the Spontoonie. One had written on the terrier’s tolerance and patience, while the others had seemed impressed by his confidence. Only four furs out of the six groups were considered by their peers to be worthy of being made syndic.
Johansen entered the results of all of the essays into his logbook for submission to his commander upon their return to the base, then filled his pipe and sat back to smoke and have another beer. His charges would have a busy Sunday to get ready before shipping out on the Orca Monday morning.