Count on Eegik

Eegik Tuchiak felt the chill of the icy Alaskan wind through his parka as the snowmobile sped across the coastal plain. Even scrunching close behind his father in the seat ahead did not cut the cold very much.

Eegik was both happy and worried. This was the first time his father had taken him to count the musk-oxen. Other times he had been too young to be around the skittish animals. Am I old enough now if something happens? he wondered.

“Hold tight!” he heard his father, Ukak, call. “We will near the herd soon.”

The grind of the motor and the whistling wind were the only sounds to be heard along the Nunivak Island snow hills, polished hard by the constant wind. The crusty white surface gave a dusky light to the short winter days.

“There they are!” Father shouted.

Gradually the engine slowed and the snowmobile slid to a stop. “We will keep the motor running, son,” Ukak said, picking up his rifle. “It will freeze if we don’t.”

Eegik hopped off the machine and peered before him. Ahead, a small musk-ox herd was bunched up against a low sea cliff. Already they were forming their defensive line—heads out, backsides together in a rough circle. With heads lowered and rows of horns facing the danger, the animals scuffed the ground nervously. Long brown fur swayed in the wind.

“They look like fur rugs,” Eegik remarked.

“Yes,” his father answered, “and the giviut (wool) makes warm sweaters. But,” he added, “they are good fighters, too, when there is no way out. See the horns curling down from the tops of their heads like stiff wigs? We will get closer. The oomingmuk (bearded ones) hide their young behind them.”

Eegik felt a deep pride in his father, who had been schooled by the government. Now he was hired by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to keep an eye on the growing musk-ox herd, one of the hardiest animals in the world. Today he had to check on the population of the herd and count them.

Slowly and quietly the two left the machine and crawled over the snow, watching the herd skitter at the movement. One bull lowered and shook his head, taking short stamping steps forward and backward. Sensing his restlessness, the other animals jostled together and tightened the ring. Eegik could see one small head push forward, a young one anxious to do battle if necessary.

“They run swiftly,” Ukak whispered. “We must not frighten them.”

The two inched forward, sliding over the ice several yards apart, until they were within fifty yards of the herd. The lead bull, confused and frightened, danced excitedly in his position.

Suddenly, the bull gave a snort and charged forward with the speed of a much lighter animal. Ukak leaped up—his rifle flying—and tried to dodge as the animal attacked. But the musk-ox was more sure on his feet and swerved to the side, throwing Eegik’s father to the ice.

Without thinking, Eegik shouted his surprise and fell on his stomach. At the outburst, the frightened musk-oxen broke their ring, skittered excitedly, and clattered off in a wild rush.

His heart pounding, Eegik scrambled to his feet and hurried to his father, who lay sprawled on the ice.

“Father!” he cried, pushing at his parka. “Father, are you all right?”

Ukak opened his eyes and tried to rise. A shudder went through him. “My wrist … ,” he said, painfully. “I think it’s broken. Are the oomingmuk gone?”

Eegik nodded. “Can you walk, Father?” he asked.

“We should make my arm straight,” Ukak said, gritting his teeth against the pain.

“But there are no sticks,” Eegik answered.

His thoughts racing, Eegik looked around, trying to find something straight and hard. But the barren arctic desert covered now by the ice held no useful object.

Then Eegik spotted the gun a few feet away. “The rifle, Father!” he cried. “We can use the rifle.”

“My son,” Ukak said, nodding, “it is a good idea.”

With his mittened hands, Eegik lifted the gun and emptied the chamber of bullets. Gently, he slid the barrel up his father’s sleeve to the elbow and wrapped the injured arm with the leather ties from his parka.

“There!” he finally said, leaning back to look at his handiwork. “That will help until we get home.”

Ukak smiled. “It is feeling better already,” he said.

With Eegik helping, the two made their way to the waiting snowmobile.

“You will have to drive,” Ukak said, holding the rifle butt with his good hand.

“I can,” the boy replied.

Eegik helped his father onto the seat, eased in front, and started off with the machine.

The journey back was slow, Eegik being careful to keep the ride as smooth as possible. Within an hour, they entered Mekoryuk and drove to their home.

At the sound of their approach, Eegik’s mother opened the door. “What’s wrong?” she asked when she saw that Eegik was in the driver’s seat.

“The oomingmuk did not like our visit,” Father answered, cradling his arm as he eased himself from the machine. “I might still be there, but for Eegik. I’m glad I took our son along.”

Eegik lifted his chin. He had wondered if he were old enough to help his father check on the skittish musk-oxen. Now he knew that he was.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Karen Sharp