BY WILLIAM FALO
Copyright is held by the author.
THE 10 dogs pulled the sled through the snow toward the checkpoint. The man on the sled yanked on the rope and yelled some unrecognizable words to make them go faster. He wasn’t required to stop and didn’t plan on it despite the volunteer waving to him from the side of the trail.
“On by,” he called out.
The lead dog started to miss steps and the sled lurched to the side at the same time the volunteer stepped onto the trail.
“Whoa.” The musher yanked on the ropes and all the dogs tried to stop, but the lead dog’s legs gave out and it slid sideways causing the dogs behind him to trip over it. The sled spun sideways and took out the volunteer at her knees.
By the time they stopped there was a pile of dogs in the snow with a volunteer on top of the sled. They all slowly got up except for the lead dog. She whimpered and stayed on the snow.
“Damn you.” The musher pointed at the volunteer.
“I’m sorry, but I thought you were stopping.” She wiped snow off her coat and looked at the hole in her pants around her knee.
“What’s your name? I’m reporting you to the race officials.”
“I’m winning this race. Now, help me get those dogs sorted out and unhook the lead one.”
“They need a rest.”
“Are you a veterinarian?”
“No. a vet—.”
“Then it’s none of your business. Now unhook that dog.”
The dog’s yellow booties were red. It tried to get up, but fell back down. The musher shifted some of the dogs around.
“What’s the dog’s name?”
“That’s female number 17.” The sled pulled away.
Number 17 watched the other ones run away with the sled while their barks filled the air. She watched until they disappeared from view.
Maggie petted her. “I know you wanted to go with them.”
The dog plopped its head down.
“Why aren’t you in more pain?” She heard rumors about painkillers being used on the dogs.
A race official was scheduled to arrive soon. She carried the dog to her car and put it in the backseat then covered it with blankets.
The official arrived and started toward her, but she pretended not to see him and drove away.
She stayed next to the dog all night. In the morning, her phone rang.
“Maggie. Bring the dog back.” The race official said. “A musher claimed you have it.”
“I can’t. I’m going to take her to the vet today.”
“The dog belongs to the musher. He already threatened to call the police.”
“The dog is in bad shape. She doesn’t even have a name. He calls her Female 17 and by the way her feet are ruined. I also think he drugged her. I’m going to get a blood test done.”
“Calm down. Just bring the dog back and all will be forgotten.”
“If she can’t run he will kill her.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I believe it.” She hung up.
“Number 17. What happened to the other sixteen dogs before you? There were only ten on the sled team.”
She picked up a picture of her parents from the shelf closest to her. A dog stood alongside them in front of their airplane. Timber was the dog’s name. She couldn’t go with them that day because of school. The plane crashed in the wilderness. There were no survivors.
Number 17 whimpered when she carried her out to the car.
Her phone rang.
“I want my dog back.”
“I’m taking it to the vet.”
“I’m going to call the police if you don’t return it to me.”
He raised his voice. “Damn you. It’s my dog. I’ll see to it that you never work in Alaska again.”
“I can go to the press or the internet about the dog’s condition.”
“It’s part of dogsledding.”
“I’m going to get a blood test done.”
The line remained silent.
“The dog can never race again.”
“Okay, you can keep the dog under the condition you keep it out of the news. I’ll fax the papers to the clinic when you get there.” He hung up.
In the waiting room, every time a dog barked or whimpered, she jumped to her feet.
When the veterinarian came out she jumped up.
“I’ll get the results of the blood tests in a couple of days. There might be drugs in her system. We will see. Her feet are painful, but will recover with care.”
Tears ran down Maggie’s cheeks. “Thank you.”
“Do you want to see her?”
“Yes.” They walked back and Number 17 looked up at her when she came into the room.
Maggie hugged her and she felt warm licks on her neck.
“She is happy to see you.”
“Oh, I got these ownership papers from the fax machine while you were waiting.”
Maggie took them and smiled. Now they were a family. She could take care of Number 17, but she must remain silent about the abuse. That was the deal. At least she got to keep Number 17.
She thought about changing Number 17’s name, but the dog was used to it and maybe it could serve as a reminder of what she went through and that some of the other sled dogs are still in danger.
Maggie gripped the computer when she read about the dogs that died at the Iditarod race or were killed because they were not fast enough to make the dogsled team. She wiped her eyes when she read the reports of bloody paws and about the drugs used on the sled dogs. She held Number 17 close to her for a long time.
“It’s time for a new name and a new direction,” she said. “We’ve been silent too long.” The dog looked into her eyes and licked her hand. Its feet still looked bad, but she walked a little better every week. They walked out the door one step at a time down a path through the snow.