Thanks: To Sage for beta
Notes: For the Gentlemen of the Road challenge on ds_flashfiction
"Sled tracks!" Måns shouted and waved his thickly padded arm toward the snowfield before us.
I was off in a dream and it took a moment for the words to sink in. Long days on the ice can induce a kind of trance, and our team had been out tracking and studying polar bears for ten days now. It was easy to get lulled by the constant rasp of the runners, the creak of the harnesses and occasional barking from the dogs. Now and then, Jools would stop us and pull her camera from inside her clothing to take a photo — sometimes with Måns and I posed in the foreground; more often not — but mostly we kept a weather eye out for signs of life and followed our pre-plotted course.
But now Jools steered us towards the disrupted snow.
"There's two sets of tracks." Måns disembarked and trudged over to examine them more closely, then added, meticulously, "Unless it's one sled which double-backed on itself and traversed the same path twice."
I hid a smile. Måns' pedantry, formerly a source of much frustration, was now only endearing. It had saved our lives more than once.
"The second sled is smaller, see?" Jools pulled up alongside Måns and pointed to the narrower spread. "Fewer dogs, too." She was an expert at reading the landscape. We'd be literally lost without her.
I leaned over to see for myself. The tracks were fresh; the stripes of the runners cut smoothly across the regular complexity of multiple paw prints.
"Shall we pay a visit?" I suggested, but it was already a foregone conclusion. One didn't pass up an opportunity to meet wanderers — most likely fellow scientists. The community this far north was spread thin, but we all depended upon each other, and if we had no need of our own, we might well be able to fulfill those of our unknown fellow travelers.
Little did I know.
* * *
We pushed hard and caught up with them mid-afternoon. There were three men and, as we'd guessed, two teams. The dogs were in excellent condition and seemed happy in their harnesses. The men had the weathered look of people who'd been out on the ice for several months. Their faces were brown and unshaven, and two of them had a marked tendency to squint. The third, a sturdy handsome man, was wearing old-fashion snow goggles, which he took off when he introduced himself as Benton Fraser of the RCMP. "I first came to Chi—" he started, and then halted with a bemused look and changed tack. "We're on a quest for the hand of Franklin."
"Catherine Stubing," I said, shaking their hands, "from Germany."
Måns introduced himself, and we left the rest of the conversation to Jools, whose conversational English was strongest. I could understand most of what the men said, but I was too ice-nipped and snow-stupid to dredge up idiomatically correct responses.
"Ray Vecchio," said the second man, pulling his thermal hat from his head and greeting us warmly. "I was starting to think we were the only people left on earth."
"Might as well be," said the third man, whose beard was blond. He grinned at us engagingly. "Ray Kowalski."
Måns and I exchange glances and small shrugs. I could tell he was wondering, as I was, if 'Ray' were some kind of Canadian title we hadn't encountered before.
Meanwhile Kowalski cocked his head at Jools, as if a thought had struck him. "Hey, uh, have you guys got a radio?"
"Kowalski!" Vecchio sounded fondly exasperated. "We might as well be on Mars out here! What does it even matter?"
"I just want to know where I stand, financially speaking." Kowalski winked at us. "No point having a bet if we can't tell who won."
Fraser had an air of long-suffering, but I caught a twinkle lurking in his eye. "As you well know, and as I believe I mentioned several times before, Ray, betting for money is illegal in Canada."
"Yeah, Benny, what're you going to do? Arrest us?" Vecchio seemed as unmoved by this prospect as Kowalski, though I couldn't conceive why. If Fraser were with the RCMP, as he said, it might not be an idle threat.
But Kowalski burst out laughing until he choked. "Again?" he gasped, at last. He struggled for composure and managed, finally, to reiterate his enquiry about the radio. "I could trade you."
Jools would have gladly offered them free use of the radio, I knew, but she was one who couldn't pass up an offer. "Trade what?"
"Uh, I can whittle," said Kowalski, still pink in the face from laughter.
At his words, Fraser hastened to busy himself unpacking a stove and supplies from their sled, obviously about to offer us tea as if we were at a garden party. Vecchio glanced at Kowalski and then looked away hurriedly, apparently trying to keep from cracking up, also.
"You can whittle one thing," he said in a strangled voice.
"Yeah, but I do it good." Kowalski reached into the pocket of his parka and pulled out a gun.
I startled, my guts churning, but it only took a second to register that the gun was made of wood. It was a toy — or, more accurately, a miniature facsimile, detailed in every regard.
"It's a Glock 9MM," Kowalski explained.
"You'll have to excuse him," murmured Fraser, appearing suddenly at my side. "He's American."
* * *
Jools politely accepted the wooden gun, tucked it into her pack and then let the Rays use the radio to find out who'd won the World Series. I couldn't tell from their boisterous responses who had won their wager.
Meanwhile, I took much appreciation in their tea and dried meat strips. Måns compared dogs with Fraser and soon they set about staking our respective teams far enough apart that they wouldn't cause any trouble. We ended up all camping there that night, and the three men entertained us around the campfire with outrageous cops and robbers stories. Americans indeed!
Anyway, this is all a roundabout way of explaining how it came to pass that two and a half weeks later when we reached the coast, Jools and Måns and I, armed only with our radio, Jools' camera and a gun carved out of wood, managed to apprehend the villainous crew of a tanker and prevent them from releasing their cargo of toxic waste into the Beaufort Sea. Perhaps some of the Rays' American bravado had rubbed off on us after all.
But it's late now, my dear, and that's a story for another time.