The King’s Creek outpost was far enough north that in summer there was neither warmth nor darkness. The half-dozen Mounties stationed there had seen more activity in the last few days than in all the previous lonely stranded year.
First Sergeant Frobisher and his troops had arrived. Then, a smaller but far more interesting contingent showed up at their door: that brunette dish of an Inspector, her dopey sidekick, and a wolf. The night before they all were scheduled to go after Muldoon there was even more excitement. Bob Fraser’s son skidded into camp with his American tagging along. Finally, if all that hadn’t been enough, a whole paratroop team had fallen out of the sky. Yes, it had been an interesting few days, and no mistake.
More quickly than it started, it ended. The plane that had disgorged the paratroopers landed on an adjoining ice field and swallowed up its occupants again, but this time they took one more with them – Muldoon. The next day another plane evacuated the woman, her gawky constable and all of the men that had arrived with Frobisher. All that were left as guests were one sergeant, one constable, the American detective and the wolf.
Buck Frobisher’s only reason for staying was to try to talk Fraser out of his foolhardy plan to go looking for the hand of Franklin. Buck supervised their loading up of ‘tack and tallow’, but he took every opportunity to point out, as tactfully as he could, all the reasons the adventure was a bad idea. All the while he knew his attempts would probably be futile. Benton was as stubborn as Bob had ever been. Nor was it easy, in that cramped cabin, to find chances to talk to Benton alone.
On the night before Fraser and Ray were scheduled to leave, Buck and the six resident Mounties agreed that they would all make one last attempt to talk some sense into Fraser. They figured they would have to wait until Vecchio was asleep, but that took a long time in the midnight sun. Finally, Ray dropped off and they had their chance.
“Benton, wake up,” Buck said, unnecessarily since their movement and muttering around his cot had already awakened him. Fraser’s eyes eased open, squinting against the sunlight. Diefenbaker, who had been sleeping beside Fraser’s bed, was already fully alert and on guard.
“We have to talk to you. Come into the kitchen.” They kept their voices low so that the American sleeping in the cot beside would not hear and awaken. Fraser followed them into the kitchen and dropped, still half-asleep, onto a chair. Diefenbaker trotted along and stood watching.
“Son, this isn’t duty. You’re not obliged to go,” said Buck once he figured Fraser was awake enough to pay attention. The other Mounties all stood around murmuring their agreement.
“No, it’s not duty,” Fraser protested sleepily. “It’s friendship. Ray wants this so much, I hate to let him down. You’d have done the same for Dad, wouldn’t you?”
Buck had the sense he was being gotten around. This was indeed just the kind of hare-brained undertaking that would have lured himself and Bob, so he answered all the more vehemently, “No, I wouldn’t. If you want to show your friendship for this Yank, you’ll talk him out of it. It’s dangerous. What if something happens to . . . him?”
Buck’s sentence was originally going to be ‘What if something happens to YOU?’ but he realized it would only get Benton’s back up to say it that way.
“These aren’t the old days, Buck. We’re up to our necks in emergency equipment. I won’t let Ray get hurt, but if he does I have only to flick a switch on the Emergency Locator Transmitter and we’re as good as home.”
“And if you get lost?”
“Me? Get lost? Whose son am I?” Fraser could see this pleasantry wasn’t going over. “Look, the Global Positioning System Receiver is so simple even Ray can handle it. And there’s the INMARSAT if that doesn’t work.
“The Sergeant is right, Constable.” A Mountie named Jim put in. “And you haven’t even told anybody how long you plan to be gone.”
“I intend to play it by ear. My guess is that after a week or two Ray will have had enough.”
They all spent another half hour badgering Fraser. The other Mounties had only met him a few days ago but he was a fellow RCMP officer, and, even more to the point, he was the son of the famous Bob Fraser.
Finally Fraser ended the matter by saying, “I guess it’s kind of a reverse-Sam McGee thing. I just miss the north and want to spend some time at home again. Can’t you understand that?”
They could, so they let him and Diefenbaker go back to bed.
As Fraser pulled aside his blanket and Diefenbaker circled in place in preparation to lie down, Ray turned over in his bed.
“They giving you a hard time, buddy?”
“Nothing I can’t handle. Go back to sleep, Ray.”
“I changed my mind. I don’t want to go anymore.”
Fraser laughed at him. “You’re a bad liar, Ray.”
“One of my many charms.” Ray pulled his blanket over his head to try to shut out the sun, turned back over and drifted off again.
Diefenbaker trotted to his spot in front of the dogs already in harness and waiting with the sled. Fraser strapped him up, gave him a last pat on the head and then straightened, looking off into the snowdrifts and grey ridges that made up the landscape ahead.
“This is it, Dief. We’re off. Just like the old days.” He turned to Ray. “Climb aboard and I’ll wrap you up. You might be cold sitting and doing nothing, so I’ve got extra furs.”
Ray didn’t climb aboard. “You said I was supposed to learn to drive this thing.”
“Tomorrow. Today it’s me and Dief and the call of the wild.” Fraser smiled to himself as he looked out over the sun-lit frozen landscape. He took a breath of frigid air deeply into his lungs and said softly to himself, “Home.” Then to Ray he said, “You’ll have plenty of time to learn to drive. Come on, your chariot awaits.”
Ray felt a little silly just sitting and being packed up. “Let me do something useful, Fraser. I don’t want to just sit.”
“Okay. Tell you what. As we go today, I want you to try to memorize the landscape, get oriented.”
“Why? You showed me how to use all that positioning stuff.”
“Ray, Ray, Ray, you can’t always depend on technology. We are MEN.” Diefenbaker turned and let out a good-natured mock-snarl. “And wolves,” Fraser added. He turned to Buck who had been watching from a small distance away.
“We’re off, Sergeant. Thank you kindly for all your help. I don’t guess I’ll see you when we get back, you said you were shipping out in a few days.”
“A few days.” Buck resisted the urge to take the younger man into his arms and hug him. It wouldn’t be young Benton’s way, any more than it had been Bob’s. Then, looking at Benton’s delicate features so clear in the bright sunlight, Buck saw Caroline looking at him through her son’s eyes.
‘I tried to talk him out of this, Caroline. But he’s Bob’s son. Bob’s and yours.’ Buck reflected that Julie was the best child a man could have. Still, Benton could yet be his own son if only he and Julie would admit how they felt about each other. Buck made a pledge to himself, and to his two dead friends, to push this matter along as soon as he heard Benton was back.
Buck pulled his Stetson down so that Benton wouldn’t see the tears, then saluted.
Fraser returned the salute in a manner sharp, straight and perfectly serious.
‘He’s a fine boy, Caroline. I hope you can see him.’ Aloud Buck said, “Carry on, Constable.”
When the sun had circled as far west as it was going to that day, Fraser decided to make camp for the night. Ray, eager to show his competence, put up the tent while Fraser tended and fed the dogs. Then, Diefenbaker and the two men retired to the tent where Fraser fired up their Coleman stove and warmed up their tins of beans and a kettle of tea. Diefenbaker preferred hot milk to tea, but made do while they were out on expedition.
After they ate, Fraser leaned back against one of the packs and stretched his thermal-sock covered feet towards the stove. Diefenbaker lay curled up by his side, his flank pressed against his man’s flank.
“So, our first day out. How do you like it so far?” The question was directed to Ray. Fraser already knew the wolf was having a fine time.
“I wasn’t cold. Every movie you see about the north, the dudes are cold. I was great under all those furs.”
“You know what we say in the north?” Fraser said while scratching Diefenbaker behind the ear. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad dressing.”
‘I always was a bad dresser.”
“I don’t think so, Ray. Denim suits you. Now, tell me about what you observed today.”
Ray sat up straight like a boy in school.
“Get ready to be proud of me, Fraser. I memorized every snow drift along the way.”
Ray paused. Fraser didn’t look at all impressed.
“Um, Ray. Snowdrifts?”
“Yeah. They’re huge. Great markers. Something wrong?”
“Ray. Why are they called snowdrifts?”
“Don’t follow you.” Ray thought about it. “They’re made of snow.”
“And . . .?” Fraser prompted.
Ray figured it out. “They drift,” he said sheepishly. “I suck, don’t I.”?
“You don’t suck, Ray. You’re just out of your element. For the first couple of years I was hopelessly lost in Chicago. Tomorrow you’ll learn to drive the team and I’m sure you’ll do just fine. Much better than I drive a car, probably.”
Feeling a little reassured, Ray located their two sleeping bags among the baggage, tossed one to Fraser and unzipped the other for himself. “I hate sleeping in this light. It’s spooky.”
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun . . .” Fraser quoted with a chuckle as he opened up his sleeping bag.
Diefenbaker was a good teacher, trotting the team along at a pace just fast enough to give Ray the right feel for the movement of the sled and just slow enough for Fraser to be able to jog along beside, shouting pointers.
By midday Ray felt he had the hang of it and Diefenbaker felt he had Ray sufficiently trained. But Fraser declined to get onto the sled and ride. “Lazy men ride,” he declared, then seeing his friend’s insulted look he added, “or beginners who aren’t used to running in the snow.”
“I’ll show you who’s a beginner!” To the dogs Ray called out a sharp “hee-yah!”
Diefenbaker picked up on the cue, took control and dashed off at top speed, while Ray bounced along on the back of the sled.
Fraser ran off after them shouting, “Ray! Dief! Wait uuuuuh . . .” He felt resistance against his left foot, a sudden wrench in his ankle and he found himself face down in the snow. He pushed himself up and sat, legs splayed, looking like a toddler sitting in the snow and feeling just as helpless. The ankle throbbed.
Meanwhile Ray and Diefenbaker had, at Fraser’s cry of pain, made the simultaneous decision to halt the sled and turn it around. Fraser watched his human friend jump off the sled and plod through the snow towards him.
“You okay?” Ray held out a hand to pull the Mountie to his feet. Fraser grasped it in an unthinking, automatic attempt to stand up and sank back down into the snow, wincing.
“I can’t walk on it. Help me up onto the sled.”
Fraser muttered and groused as Ray lifted him up onto one foot then swung him over onto the sled. “Didn’t look where I was going. Put my foot right into a crack in the ice. Can’t believe it. Just like a rookie,” Fraser grumbled as Ray packed furs around him.
“So, what happens now? Can I set off that Emergency Locator Transmitter you showed me?”
The Mountie snorted. “You’d like that wouldn’t you? Dramatic rescue in the high arctic. Buck would never let me live it down.” Fraser knew that, in fact, Buck Frobisher and anybody else would applaud his calling for help – making it all the more unthinkable to do that. Meanwhile, Fraser noticed Ray’s look was getting dangerously like real worry.
“It’s only twisted,” Fraser said, so firmly that he almost convinced himself it was true.
"Okay, how about this?" Ray insisted, "We'll camp here for the night. If your ankle's not better tomorrow, me and Dief’ll drive you back."
"Now? It's nowhere near night!"
Ray looked around at the glare of the relentless sun coming off the surface of the snow around them. "Like day or night makes any difference up here. It's never dark anyway."
Ray set up camp while Diefenbaker and the dogs watched. Then Ray hopped Fraser over to the tent door, eased him inside and settled him onto a pile of furs.
“We’ve got Tylenol in the first aid kit. Shall I get it out?” Ray offered.
“That’s a good idea, Ray. You’re not used to driving a dogsled, you might feel sore later.”
Ray was determined to be helpful. “Should I take your boot off?”
“No!” Fraser was glad the recommended procedure was to leave footwear on. Any attempt to take his boot off would certainly cause him more pain than he could hide from Ray. Then, more quietly, he added, “It’s probably too swollen anyway.”
Ray was beginning to regret giving in to Fraser’s annoying stoicism. Fraser’s face was whiter and his lips more pursed than was usual for his Mountie-friend. Ray considered setting off the Emergency Locator Transmitter and to hell with Fraser’s objections. He decided against it. Let Fraser save face, if not foot.
“Will you at least let me do the cooking?”
Fraser pressed his lips even harder together and nodded. Ray and Diefenbaker exchanged a look.
“I don’t care what you say, Fraser. Tomorrow we go back.” Just the declaration made Ray feel a little better about the whole deal. “We got to do like your Mountie motto. You know, bring ‘em back alive.”
Fraser closed his eyes and leaned back with a slight groan that he wrongly thought Ray didn’t hear. “That’s not our motto.”
“Oh yeah. Always get your man, right?”
“No. Maintain the right. That’s the RCMP motto. Maintain the right.”
“Really? That’s kind of boring.” Ray looked to Fraser for an answering quip. The Mountie only rested quietly against the furs, eyes closed.
“Well, you’re not going anywhere. I guess I’m going to have to take care of the dogs myself. Come on, Diefenbaker, you can show me what to do.” Ray slipped out of the tent into the wind and sun, followed by the wolf and zipped up the tent-flap behind him.
Fraser started to shiver. He decided it was, of course, because it was still too chilly inside the tent. No other reason for him to be shivering. The Mountie sat up again and scooted himself closer to the stove. His left foot made contact with a tent-pole shooting a jolt of agony up his leg. It took all his control not to yelp. He sat breathing hard for a few minutes, and then leaned over to pump up the pressure chamber on the stove. Normally he knew not to do that inside an enclosed space with the stove still lit, but his mind was occupied with denying the pain.
Fraser became aware that his back was cold. And wet. Why? He drifted into a vague consciousness. Memory of the last few moments came back. Bright flash. Big boom. Now it seemed he was lying down flat. That couldn't be good.
His awareness expanded. He was lying in a puddle of water, face up. Squinting against the light made him realize there was no tent anymore. It also made his eyelids tingle. A moment passed and Fraser realized all of him was tingling.
Ray’s face came into view, right up close to his own face.
"Fraser! Can you hear me? You're badly burned. I'm going to call for help. I'll be right back to you in a few minutes. Hang on."
The tingling became pain, all over his skin and just under his skin. It didn't make sense. He'd been wounded before, but never all over his body at the same time. He thought about this and why he wasn't cold, even though he heard the wind howling and there was no tent. Something about burns?
Ray was talking again. "Nothing's working! The INMARSAT, the transmitter, they must have been damaged in the explosion."
Explosion. It was beginning to make a little sense now.
"You . . . " the sound dragged pain along his throat as Fraser forced out the words, " . . . hurt? Dief . . . hurt?"
"No, we're fine. And all the dogs. You're the one that got blown up."
Stupid, stupid to let himself get blown up.
"I'll have to drive you back myself, but, Fraser, that Global Positioning thing isn't working. I don't know how to get back! I wasn’t watching where we were going this morning. I was just thinking about not falling off the sled.” There was panic in his friend's voice. “Fraser! I don’t know the way back!”
Fraser knew he had to stay calm and take control. I know the way. I'll give you directions. That's what he wanted to say, but the only words that Fraser’s throat would allow to emerge were "I" and "directions".
"Okay, I'll put you on the sled. Stay with me, Fraser. Just stay with me. I'm going to drive you back to the outpost. I think you must have some internal injuries, but I can't tell for sure. I'll try to be as gentle as I can."
Fraser’s back was out of the water. Ray must be lifting him. The pain that was only in and under the skin before was now also deep inside his gut. No, this definitely wasn't good.
Ray's voice came back. "Your coat and the furs and all our first aid stuff got burned up, but there were a few blankets left on the sled. I'm going to wrap you up now. Okay?"
"Turn left . . . after . . . next snow bank."
Sometimes Fraser drifted towards someplace very soft and comfortingly dark. Ray's voice always called him back, always asking the way. Fraser somehow knew he had only to relax, and he would be out of the pain and the constant, searing light. But Ray was so helpless.
"Look for . . . two boulders . . . follow . . . the gully."
Shameful to shiver like this. Bad dressing.
“Turn right . . . at . . . boulders.”
Fraser marveled that there could be so many different kinds of pains at once: the sharp pangs on the outside, the rhythmic throbs around the edges, the dull sloshing hurts inside. Sloshing. That’s unbecoming an officer of the law. A Mountie doesn’t slosh. And he doesn’t desert his friends and go running off to some painless place, no matter how invitingly soft and dark it may be.
Ray pulled the dogs to a halt. “What now?”
There was no answer at first from inside the blankets.
Ray was answered by a gurgling sound, like a voice from under water. “What . . . time . . .”
Ray pushed four layers of coverings back from his wrist and exposed his watch. “A little after eleven. At night.” he added.
The gurgling gave way to a choke, and then a cough that sent a fine red spray into the air in front of Fraser’s face. “Good . . . head away . . . from the sun. Do you . . . see . . . hills?”
Ray swung his back to the sun and peered out into the swirling snow. “Yes! Hills! I see them!”
Fraser’s voice hadn't been loud before but now it was barely audible. Ray crouched beside the Mountie’s head and brought his ear close to the furs. As much as the words themselves Ray had to hear Fraser’s voice just to know his friend was still around.
“Go . . . towards . . . hills. Count the . . . third from the left . . . Go . . . there.” The last word was actually a grunting burst of air.
“Right. Just let me have a look at you before we get going.” Ray reached to open the bundle of blankets but Fraser’s voice said, “No, keep it closed. I’m fine.”
“You’re not fine,” Ray said this automatically but he did notice Fraser’s voice was louder and steadier than it had been just the instant before. Before Ray could reflect on this further, Diefenbaker whimpering and twisting about in his harness distracted his attention.
The wolf became more and more agitated. Ray went over and undid his harness. As soon as he was loose, Diefenbaker bounded to the Mountie’s side, pushing his nose into the wrappings and letting out a series of pathetic yips.
Ray bent down beside him and petted the animal about his neck and ears. “Fraser’s hurt bad, Diefenbaker. We can’t stay here. You got to help me get him back.”
Diefenbaker ignored him. “Don’t leave!” he begged Fraser.
“I’m sorry, Dief, I tried to hang on.” Fraser felt a little less humiliated when he realized that at least now he could talk without burning his throat. And, for some reason, it was much easier to understand Diefenbaker’s speech. As ashamed as he felt for having lost control and slipping into the comfort of the dark place, there did seem to be some advantages to this defeat.
“But I can’t smell my way home in the snow. I need your eyes. This other one, he doesn’t know where to go. I’m afraid.”
“I’ll get you both back, I promise.”
"Now follow along this ridge, keep it on your left, and in about half an hour you should get to an innook-shook."
"A marker. Pile of stones shaped like a man. You can't miss it."
"You feeling better? You sound better."
Fraser hated to lie to his friend, but the truth wouldn’t get Ray home any faster. "I'm not in pain anymore," he ventured, hoping Ray would be satisfied.
"So maybe we should stop and rest a little. Let me have a look at you."
"No! You're almost there! Once you get to the innook-shook, it should be only another few miles to the outpost."
“Just how stupid ARE Americans, anyway?” Diefenbaker wanted to know. “He just keeps talking to you like nothing’s happened.”
“He's not stupid, he's just exhausted.”
“Well, I'm tired, too.”
“Be brave, Dief. You're almost there.”
Buck and two other Mounties came running out of the cabin as the sled pulled up.
“Fraser. Hurt.” Ray mumbled before passing out in the snow.
“Jim - take the detective inside! Guillaume – ggo get a stretcher!” Buck ordered. One of the Mounties hefted Ray onto his shoulder in a fireman’s lift and both men trotted off.
Buck pulled aside the blankets, frowned and then placed two fingers at the base of Fraser’s neck. The frown deepened and he took hold of Fraser's forearm, giving it a gentle shake. It was completely stiff.
“No. God, please, no. Not him, too.” Buck sank to his knees in the snow beside the sled.
Guillaume returned, trailing a stretcher behind him. He took in the scene, stopped in his tracks, and then dropped the stretcher and went around to the other side of the sled. He, too, looked and made his assessment.
“Must have died at least six hours ago, probably more. Sergeant?”
Buck said nothing. He just knelt there silently in the snow beside the body of the man who was not his son.
Jim came out and joined them. “Antoine’s taking care of the American. He doesn’t think he’s hurt, just exhausted. What about Fraser?”
“He’s dead, Jim,” said Guillaume quietly.
Guillaume and Jim stood looking for several minutes at the two motionless figures: one on the sled and one beside it. Then Guillaume spoke again.
“You take Sergeant Frobisher inside, I’ll take care of the dogs.”
“What about Fraser? How’ll we get him off?”
“I don’t think we can just yet. He’s stiff as a board. Shed four is heated. We’ll unhook the dogs then put then the whole sled in there. Let him thaw out and let the rigor mortis wear off. Then we should be able to lay him out all decent.”
“Poor son-of-a-bitch. Why didn’t he listen?”
Oblivious now to the harsh sunlight assailing his face, Ray slept.
Beside him Buck Frobisher sat watching, with Diefenbaker snoozing at Buck’s feet. Only from Ray could Buck learn what had happened. This was pretty much the only thing stopping Buck from putting a pillow over Ray’s face and smothering him. Or else, strangling the American would also be satisfying – Buck’s hands throbbed to twist that scrawny neck. Buck had no doubt some hideous blunder of the American's must have caused the slow, agonizing death Benton's burns suggested.
‘Fraser. Hurt.’ The Yank had said. He didn’t even seem to know Benton was gone.
Every twenty minutes or so Buck got up, put on his coat and went out to shed four to check on Benton. Diefenbaker never bothered to come along. The thing that the old one went to look at wasn’t his man anymore, so there was no point.
Antoine, who served as medic in the outpost, stopped Buck as he was coming back from one such trip.
“It’s going to take a some time for him to loosen up, Sergeant. Why don’t you just leave him alone for a while?”
Buck hadn’t raised his voice above a whisper since Jim had gently coaxed him away from the sled and into the cabin. The other men figured he was whispering so as not to wake the detective up, but Frobisher continued to talk softly even now, in the cabin doorway. “I don’t like to see Benton like that. Can’t we get him inside right now?”
“We could, but it’ll be easier to move him in a few more hours. And more dignified.”
“I suppose.” Buck went back to the room where Ray was still sleeping.
“You wouldn’t want to tell me what happened out there, would you, Diefenbaker?” Buck whispered as he settled back into his chair beside Ray’s bed.
But with his man now gone, and himself safely back, Diefenbaker had very little interest in what any of the other humans said or did - as long as they fed him, and this they had done. As for his own man, the only one he cared about, the important thing was that he was out of pain. The other one could tell the story, or not. Diefenbaker didn’t much care.