The vast snow-covered plains loomed against a frozen blue-white sky. For as far as the eye could see, there were no signs of life, and the sun was a mere sliver of white in a frozen dome of sky.
Sentar shivered, then followed Bratsk from the pine-covered lean-to. He stood and brushed the snow from his knees. “Put your eye shield on, or the snow will blind you!” Bratsk growled irritably. “It is bad enough that I have to cross these mountains—but to drag a youth like you along makes it even worse!”
Obediently Sentar did as he was told, then pulled his cap snugly down around his ears. “Yes, that is better,” he agreed as he breathed puffs of frozen air.
Bratsk attached his snowshoes to the bottom of his fur boots. “We will have to follow that trail,” he grumbled, pointing, “up through the high pass and beyond to the village of your grandmother. We must reach our destination before nightfall, for there is little shelter for anyone who tarries on the mountains after dark. Use your energy wisely, lad, for you will surely need every bit of it to get to your grandmother’s village.”
Sentar nodded. He followed Bratsk through the unbroken snow. For hours they trudged across the vast snow-covered mountain, struggling step by weary step. Each peak looked like the one before it. Sentar felt as if they were moving across a very narrow trail over the very top of the world, as if one careless step in either direction could send him sliding down the side of a hundred icy ravines to his death. At a stand of rocks, Sentar finally paused to catch his breath. As he stood panting, he heard a small noise and looked down. There, on a narrow ledge, was a boy half-buried in the snow.
“Look, Bratsk! Someone has fallen over the cliff!”
Bratsk turned and looked over his shoulder. “That is nothing to us! We need all our energy just to reach our destination. It would seem that he has already reached his!” With a gesture, he turned back along the trail, anxious to continue.
“Wait, Bratsk,” Sentar pleaded. “It will be no danger to you—I will climb down and see if I can help!” He knelt and swung his legs over the side of the ledge. “Hello!” he shouted hopefully. His words reached out in all directions and bounced back hollowly. Still, he thought he saw the boy’s hands move ever so slightly. “He is alive!” he shouted. “I saw him move!” Again his words echoed from every frozen surface. Quickly Sentar slipped his pack from his shoulders and crawled carefully but eagerly over the side.
Bratsk stopped on the trail above. “Do not do this thing!” he warned angrily. “If you do, you do it alone!”
Sentar looked up into Bratsk’s face. “We cannot pass him by and leave him here to die!”
Bratsk’s eyes narrowed. “You do not know the way of the mountains!” he thundered. “You are young and do not understand. The boy is as good as dead already! If you attempt to rescue him, two bodies will freeze in the snow instead of one! Then what will I tell your grandmother? Save your strength for yourself!”
Sentar then looked down again and shook his head. He knew that if he left the boy to die, part of him would die too. He had to do what he knew was right. “I cannot leave him.”
Bratsk scowled. “Then good-bye, Sentar. I will tell your grandmother that wolves ate your hide!”
But the guide had already turned his back on Sentar and was continuing silently through the snow.
With a sinking heart, Sentar watched Bratsk disappear along the ridge. Then the youth uncoiled his rope and tied it to a rock. Slowly he lowered himself onto the ledge. Carefully he turned the boy onto his side. The boy moaned softly, and Sentar was encouraged. “You will be all right,” he promised as he gently rubbed the boy’s hands together. “I will help you.”
Sentar strapped the boy to his back and struggled back up to the trail. Gasping, he collapsed on the snow and rested. As soon as he had caught his breath, he staggered to his feet again and, carrying the boy on his back, trudged along the trail. As nightfall came, the snow began again, driving in blinding waves. Sentar stopped and lowered the boy to the ground, for he could no longer see the way. Desperate, he hollowed an opening in the snow and crawled inside it, dragging the boy with him.
The next morning, Sentar moved on with his burden. As he traveled, he spoke reassuring words, not only to the unconscious boy but also to himself. “I can do it,” he mumbled wearily. “I know that I can do it! If I do not try, I would not be able to live with myself. Even if we do not make it, well, at least we tried.”
Finally Sentar stood gasping on a slope. He could see his destination below, where smoke spiraled from stone chimneys. “We’ve made it, my friend,” he exulted. “Soon you will have hot food and the shelter you need. You will be cared for properly.”
The people greeted Sentar joyously, and his grandmother quickly took them into her home. Later, as Sentar sat by the fire, his grandmother came from the other room. “The boy will live?” he asked.
Grandmother nodded and smiled. “Yes, he is young and will be fine.”
“But what was he doing on the mountain?” Sentar wondered.
“We will have to ask him when he is well enough to talk,” Grandmother replied. “Perhaps he was lost. Bratsk, however, was not as fortunate as you.”
Sentar’s forehead creased. “What of Bratsk?”
Grandmother shook her head slowly. “His feet were badly frostbitten, and he is in much pain.”
Sentar frowned. “How can that be? Bratsk knows the mountains far better than I, and I reached my destination even without his guidance and with a burden he would not share.
She nodded. “When you cared enough to carry an unknown boy over the snow-covered mountains, you drew warmth from your efforts, and the boy you carried drew warmth from you. You helped each other live. You see, many times a burden is also a blessing. Always remember, my son, reaching your destination is rarely more important than what you do along the way.