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Them Dogs MAG
“You still training them sled dogs?”
I glanced up at the speaker. A gruff old man with an unshaven face gazed at me. His name was Charley, and he was the town's mountain man. I nodded. “Yessir. All twelve of 'em.”
He gave me a grin, and I wondered if his teeth had ever seen a toothbrush. “How're they comin'?”
“They're coming,” I replied. “The only problem now is them nipping 'mongst themselves. They're fine in the harness, but back at the barn they crawl all over each other and start fights.”
Charley frowned briefly. Then he gave me another grin. “Mind if I come over sometime? Might find me a help.”
I mulled over the idea. This old mountain man helping me with my sled dogs? Why not? “Sure, whenever you want,” I replied.
I saw a full-fledged smile from him as we parted. He returned to his snowmobile, and I to mine.
The next morning I woke to silence. Normally, I would hear my dogs whining, waiting to be fed and run, but this morning was quiet. I did lock them in last night, right?
Outside, I quickly covered the distance from my small house to the barn. I flung open the door hastily, worry and confusion swirling through me. What I saw made my heart skip a beat. On the barn floor lay my lead dog, Brody, his gray and black fur soaked in blood. His tongue lolled out, and his eyes were glazed. Nine dogs were sitting or lying about like nothing had happened. The other two most rowdy were in separate kennels outside the barn. Each looked at me pathetically, as if asking whether I was going to blame them for Brody's death.
I didn't know who, or what, to blame. Perhaps it had been a fight – except the usual instigators had been locked outside. Maybe I had misjudged the fighting dogs and had separated the wrong ones.
I shook my head clear of the thoughts and picked up Brody's body. Now I had to declare a new lead dog. The burial was nothing fancy; I just wrapped him up in a tarp. The ground was frozen, so until it thawed, he'd stay in the basement freezer. I chose my only female, Iris, for lead position. She had always shown dominance in the pack, second only to Brody.
I kept watching for Charley to come help with my dogs. But when he didn't show,
I naturally assumed that the geezer had forgotten.
The training continued: two days at a time in the wilderness, enhancing the dogs' speed and endurance, as well as my own stamina to the cold. Then back home for a few nights. Monday morning, a week after Brody's death, I awoke to silence once again. Fearing the worst, I raced outside.
Iris lay in a pool of blood in the barn.
Ten dogs left. Hercules became the lead runner. And so, the training continued. I wasn't about to throw away the sled race because some dogs died. I wanted it. We would win the race.
A week later, Hercules succumbed to whatever was taking my dogs.
Nine dogs left. Duncan was appointed leader.
I eased up on the training schedule. Perhaps I was running them too hard. Instead of two nights out, we spent just one, and I kept the dogs to an easy lope on the trail.
But Duncan, too, I found lying in a pool of blood. Now, instead of curious, I was furious. Something, or someone, was killing my dogs. At first, I had chalked it up to a squabble between them. But then … maybe it was a competitor. Micah was planning on entering the race with his pack. But I couldn't imagine him stooping as low as to murder my animals.
Eight dogs left. Vermont was “elected” to lead the pack. He was one of my strongest dogs, so I usually kept him in the back to carry the brunt of the sled load. However, desperate times call for desperate measures, and I wanted a strong leader.
A week later Vermont was dead. I was outraged. I locked up every dog in his own kennel. If they were killing each other, I wanted no more of it. Before I had been too easy on them; this was my first pack, and I wanted to handle it the right way, to give them another chance. I now had seven dogs, which was going to be small in comparison with the other teams in the race. But I had no cash saved up to buy more dogs.
Jericho became the leader. I prayed that this would be it, that there would be no more killing.
Just two days after I appointed Jericho to lead, he died. Or, more accurately, was murdered. I was beside myself. I decided to phone the sheriff to let him know to watch out for a dog killer. He said he'd come out to check things out, and to let other townspeople know.
When he came out, he requested to see the dead dogs. One by one, he examined them. He said the wounds looked like stab wounds. “Then how come I didn't hear them howl?” I asked, horrified that my dogs could have been suffering while I slept.
“You're a deep sleeper. Or perhaps someone taped their muzzles shut … who knows.”
I decided to withdraw from the race. If it was a competitor killing my team, they should stop once word got out I had quit. When I was in town the next day, I purposefully planted the news with a few people. Word spread quickly.
With no more training necessary, I hitched my dogs up to the sled for fun, and we went for nice easy breezes over the snow. At first they weren't accustomed to such short treks, but after two weeks, they settled down. To ensure the team ran well, I chose no lead dog. I had six animals left, and I simply doubled them up so they ran in twos.
With no lead dog, no more deaths happened. This made me very curious. I decided to try something. I had seen videos and pictures of mushers hitching their dogs up in a line, so that no dog was the true leader, except, possibly, the one or two in the middle. The next day, I modified my harness. I placed the weakest dog, Danny, in the center with Jamison. Technically, they were the lead dogs, since they strode in the middle of the pack.
Our run worked well with the different hitch, and there was minimal whining and scrapping.
The next morning was quiet. Very quiet. My stomach dropped to my feet as I scrambled out of bed. I dreaded every step to the kennels. I checked on Danny and Jamison first, since technically, they were the leads. Both dead.
Snickers was dead.
Peanut was dead.
Tyson was dead.
I turned the corner to my last kennel. Tate lay on the ground. Leaning over the dead dog was Charley, a knife in his hand. When he heard me, he whipped around, his eyes wide.
He gave me a sheepish grin and said, “Them dogs won't fight no more.”