|Publisher:||Open Road Media Romance|
|Product dimensions:||5.51(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.65(d)|
About the Author
After her first romance novel was published in 1976, Janet Dailey (1944-2013) went on to write over 100 more romance novels, with 300 million copies of her books sold in 98 countries. She was the author of the Americana series, where each book was set in one of the 50 states, the Calder series, and the Bannon Brothers series, along with many stand-alone novels. Her book, Foxfire Light, was turned into a moving starring Leslie Nielsen and Tippi Hedren.
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The Great Alone
By Janet Dailey
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Janbill Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Bellied by the wind, the square sails of softened reindeer hides pulled at the leather straps that tied them to the spars of the double-masted vessel. Little water seeped through the moss-caulked cracks of the green-timbered craft as the bow nosed first toward the sky, then dipped toward the bottom of a wave trough. Modeled after a boat designed for the river trade on the Volga, the flatboat had almost no keel, which allowed it to be easily beached yet remain remarkably stable in the water. Because of the chronic shortage of iron, its green-timbered planks were lashed—or "sewn"—together with leather thongs, giving rise to its name shitik from the Russian verb shi-it which means "to sew."
In any compass direction all that could be seen from the crowded deck of the river vessel was the sullen Bering Sea heaving and rising. Luka Ivanovich Kharakov stood on the crowded deck, his feet slightly spread against the roll of the shitik, watching the flat horizon to the southeast.
He was unconcerned that the shitik had never been intended for ocean waters. Two years before, a similar vessel commanded by a Cossack sergeant from a Kamchatka garrison had set out on an expedition to the Komandorskie island group, where Bering had died. It had returned safely last summer with a rich cargo of furs, proving to any doubters the seaworthiness of the craft. Luka had not been among the skeptics. He had been refused the chance to join the company of men who sailed aboard the shitik Kapiton, rejected in favor of the surviving sailors from Bering's crew.
Nor did it bother him that this shitik had been constructed by men with no knowledge of shipbuilding. He had been one of them, whose experience was limited to the building of smaller boats to navigate Siberian rivers or traverse the lakes. The only one among them who could claim an acquaintance with the sea was the shitik's navigator and commander. A silversmith by trade, Mikhail Nevodchikov had come to Siberia in search of fortune. At Kamchatka, it was discovered he had no passport and he was pressed into government service as a crew member aboard Bering's ship, the Sv Petr. Despite the man's dubious credentials, it was claimed by some that Nevodchikov discovered the near islands of America, the group Bering had called the Delusive Islands.
It was for these the shitik steered its southeasterly course. Six days before, the boat had sailed from the mouth of the Kamchatka River and bypassed the Komandorskie Islands, where the garrison sergeant had taken a second expedition. Favoring winds had steadily pushed the vessel toward their destination, the virgin hunting grounds they wouldn't have to share with another hunting party.
With timbers groaning, the shitik climbed another swell. After six days at sea, the craft's shuddering moans had become a companionable sound, not a cause for alarm. Many times during those first days, Luka had expected the watery canyons between the ocean swells to close and swallow the sailing vessel, but each time the boat had scaled the wall of a wave, then plunged sickeningly into the next deep valley and survived. At the beginning of the voyage, he had been plagued by a mild queasy feeling, but the heaving motion no longer bothered him.
The stomachs of some members of the hunting party were not so strong. The stench of seasickness mingled with the fetid odor of unwashed bodies and tainted the wind. Near him, someone groaned at the sudden lurch of the shitik into the next trough. Luka glanced indifferently at the man half sprawled on the deck and half propped against the rail. The man held his stomach with limp arms while his head lolled to the side, his eyes shut and his mouth sagging open, vomit drying on his beard and clothes.
Disinterestedly, Luka watched the Cossack Vladimir Shekhurdin move from one ailing man to another, wetting lips with a moist cloth and squeezing drops of water into parched mouths. Luka looked over his comrades on deck. The hunting party was composed of a rough breed of men, some fifty in number, promyshleniki by trade, but their backgrounds were varied. Some were criminals—thieves, tax evaders, or murderers. Others were exiles, others serfs fleeing the tyranny of their masters. And some were like himself, the sons of promyshleniki, possessed by a lust to roam. Their assorted pasts mattered little to him. His own life had its shadows, its brutality and violence.
His glance fell on the distinctive features of a Kamchadal—the thickly lidded eyes and the broad, heavy facial bones of the Mongol race. He touched a hand to the scar on his face, feeling the coldness of hatred course through him for this tribal cousin of the Chukchi who had butchered his father and permanently disfigured him. A handful of Kamchadals were included in the hunting expedition, baptized by the church and thus the equal of any Muscovite. But not to Luka—never to Luka.
Jostled from behind, Luka swung testily around, then controlled the impulse to retaliate for the accidental shoving as Yakov Petrovich Chuprov regained his balance on the heaving deck. He held the steady gaze of the man's wise eyes for an instant, then curtly nodded to him. Chuprov's reputation as a hunter was well known to him, and Luka chose not to tangle with this sandy-bearded man who might be elected to lead the hunt. Only moments ago he'd seen Chuprov talking with the navigator.
"How long before we reach the islands? Did Nevodchikov say?" Luka asked. Since passing the Komandorskie Islands, they'd seen no land, only slate-gray sea and sky with occasional glimpses of the sun splitting through the clouds.
"He thinks it will be soon." A seagull swooped low across the shitik's bow. "According to him, the seabirds are a sign we're near land."
Luka noticed the increased number of birds in the air, but he recognized few of them. He was versed in land animals rather than the creatures of the sky and sea. The prospect of finally seeing the land that had haunted him these past years filled him with hard satisfaction. "Do you believe Nevodchikov?"
"The winds have been steady and the weather fair." The promyshlenik shrugged. "He's been here before. I have not."
From the starboard side of the deck, one of the seasick Kamchadal natives called for water. The tall, erect figure of the Cossack Shekhurdin made its way across the crowded deck. Luka gazed with contempt at the Cossack's proud, lean face with its neatly trimmed beard.
"Are you going to waste our water on him, Vladimir Andreivich?" Luka challenged, addressing him by two names as was the Russian custom. The first was his own, the second his father's, Vladimir son of Andrei.
"The man is thirsty." Shekhurdin continued, undeterred.
But his way was quickly blocked by a second promyshlenik, a big, heavily muscled man. "You might as well heave it over the side as to give it to him. That's where it's going to end up anyway." Belyaev's grin revealed the wide gap that separated his front teeth, giving him a deceptively stupid look, but his black eyes were small and sly. Shekhurdin attempted to go around him, but Belyaev wouldn't let him pass. "I say he doesn't get any water."
"I recall seeing you heave your guts over the side once or twice." The Cossack wasn't intimidated by the promyshlenik.
"But I fetched my own water when I was thirsty." Belyaev continued to grin, the shaggy black beard and mustache around his mouth drawing attention to the dark space between his teeth. "If that Kamchadal can't do for himself, throw him overboard. It will just make our share of the skins that much bigger."
Luka agreed. All the men on the expedition had been engaged on a share basis. Half the proceeds of the hunt belonged to the two merchants who had financed the voyage, and the other half would be divided among the crew, one share to each man, with the exception of the navigator, who received three, the peredovchik—leader—two, and one for the church. If the hunt was successful, a promyshlenik's share could amount to a small fortune, enough to buy a farm or a business—or stay drunk on vodka for a year.
"Look!" someone shouted. "What's that black shape on the horizon?"
The confrontation on deck suddenly lost its importance as Luka swung around to scan the horizon that was sometimes above and sometimes below the plunging and rearing prow of the shitik. A man scurried up the rawhide rigging onto a spar of the square mainsail. Everyone tensely waited for some word to sound above the groaning timbers of the heaving boat.
"Do you see anything?" Luka shouldered his way to the railing near the bow.
Interminable seconds passed before an outflung arm pointed in the direction of the starboard bow. "Land!"
Everyone crowded closer to the right side of the deck. A minute later a cheer went up at the sight of a mountainous headland thrusting out of the sea. Even the weakest of the seasick men managed to find enough strength to haul himself up to the rail and stare at the blessed vision of land.
Slowly and steadily, the simple sailcraft approached the island. Luka felt a lift of excitement, the kind that always accompanied the coming into a new territory, a keening of the senses and sharpening of the wits. They were close enough to hear the breakers crashing onto the rocky shore at the island's base.
As they skirted the north side of the island, Luka studied the treeless terrain, green with thick vegetation. Even the rocks wore a hairy growth of grasses. Inland, jagged mountains stood in tortuous ridges, indicating the island's volcanic origins. They loomed forbiddingly, void of plant life, while below a lush valley beckoned, the wind rippling the tall stalks of thick rye grass into waves.
A man was sent forward to take soundings while the navigator, Nevodchikov, skirted the half-submerged rocks and avoided the hidden shoals lying off the northern shore.
They rounded the island and turned south, sailing past the easternmost promontory and the wide bay it protected on the southeastern side. There were ample sightings of sea life amid the kelp beds off the rocky coast. In his eagerness to view the numerous sea otter curiously poking their heads out of the water, Luka crowded in with the other men at the rail. It was a sight to thrill a fur hunter's heart.
A solid cloud cover hid the sun, but Luka noticed the subtle change in temperature, a slight infusion of warmth at this place where the cold waters of the Bering Sea mingled with the warmer currents of the Pacific. The mewing cry of seabirds accompanied the rippling crack of the sails in the wind and the rhythmic slap of the waves against the boat's hull. The jagged stone cliffs of the island were whitened with their droppings. He scanned the protected bay and its shore without finding any evidence of habitation, yet he distinctly remembered the navigator making mention of the presence of a savage race on these islands.
"I thought there were natives living here." He voiced his thoughts to the man on his left, Shekhurdin.
"Maybe not on all of the islands," the Cossack suggested. "Bering Island wasn't inhabited. This one may not be either."
"It's a big island—some seventy versts long, I would guess. There might be villages elsewhere." Luka wasn't about to let his guard down. And he did not like Shekhurdin's air of authority.
The man had all the makings of a leader. He was intelligent and experienced, and despite the deceptively lean appearance Shekhurdin's height gave him, the man was strong. His courage was evident in the way he had met Belyaev's challenge. But his evenhanded treatment of the Kamchadals on board rankled Luka.
The soft hide sails billowed full with the wind as the bow of the flat-bottomed boat swung away from the island, changing course.
"Why are we moving away?" Belyaev's rough voice demanded. "There's otter here. Why are we not stopping?"
"That's like you, Belyaev," Luka mocked. "You see something you want and grab for it without taking time to see if anything better is around."
A few guffaws of laughter followed his observation, suppressed, however, in case the sometimes belligerent Belyaev took offense. But an ever-ready grin split his black-bearded face. "If there is something better, I will take that, too!" he declared. "At least the first one will not slip through my fingers while I wait to see if there is more."
But the shitik continued on its course away from the first island in the chain to search for the next. Luka watched the island receding from his view, the first land he'd seen in days. The ocean wasn't his element, and he was as anxious as everyone else to get off this crowded boat and walk on solid ground. But not so anxious that he didn't want to explore.
"For once I agree with Belyaev," Shekhurdin said when Luka faced the sea again, straining his eyes for a glimpse of another speck of land. "I would have anchored in one of the bays."
Luka looked at Shekhurdin's proud profile, the thin straight nose as narrow in its outlook as its owner. "It's morning. We have plenty of time to scout the next island."
"Presuming, of course, there is one. We only have Nevodchikov's word on that—a peasant, a silversmith whose only experience is sailing with that Dane Bering." He spoke in an undertone, matter-of-factly. "We need to replenish our supply of fresh water. I would have done so at that island while we had the chance before proceeding further. We could have gotten some fresh meat as well. We aren't that well provisioned."
His reasoning was valid and Luka didn't quarrel with it. Arguments could always be made in favor of one position or the other. They had set out on this voyage with only a small stock of provisions—some hams, a small quantity of rancid butter, a ration of rye and wheat flour so there would be bread on religious holidays, dried salmon, and most importantly, an ample supply of starter for sourdough bread to prevent scurvy. They expected to hunt and fish for the rest of their food.
"I, for one, want to see more of these islands," Luka stated. A good hunter chooses the best hunting grounds, not the first one where he finds his game.
Shekhurdin lingered only a few minutes longer, then pushed away from his position at the deck rail and wandered amid other members of the expedition. The shitik continued on its south-southeasterly course across the lead-colored sea while gulls wheeled overhead and diving cormorants fished the waters.
It wasn't long before Luka heard vague grumblings of discontent among the promyshleniki. The island was no longer in sight and a second was yet to be spotted. He heard mention of the dwindling water supply and guessed the source of dissension.
Around midday, the second island was sighted. As the craft approached it, the attention of the crew was divided between it and their captain. Luka felt the tension in the air—the men waiting to see what the decision would be this time.
The second island appeared smaller than the first, but the boat's approach to it was the same, sailing parallel to the ragged coastline. As they neared the entrance to a horse-shoe-shaped cove, the sides marked with jagged fingers of rocks thrust out of the water and the center arc a curving beach of white sand, Luka saw Chuprov speak briefly to the navigator. Seconds later, the order was given to lower one of the square mainsails.
When the shitik swung toward the green cliffs beyond the white beach, the tension of the crew eased perceptibly, with smiles and murmurs of satisfaction. A man was ordered to the bow to take soundings and keep a lookout for submerged rocks.
"We'll anchor here for the night." Nevodchikov lifted his voice to make the announcement to the entire company.
"Will we be going ashore?" one of the men shouted.
"Not until morning. Then Chuprov will take a party ashore to look for water. We'll use the daylight hours to explore the area and select safe anchorages for the night until we find the best location for wintering."
Luka saw Shekhurdin stiffen and his face grow cold with anger that he had not been chosen to lead the shore detail. Luka approved of both the decision and the choice of leaders; he respected Chuprov's experience and judgment more than he did the Cossack's.
Excerpted from The Great Alone by Janet Dailey. Copyright © 1986 Janbill Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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