Sam checked her watch. Would Wesley really come back up here right away? No, not likely. Not with his hand like that. But that’s what everyone thought that day at school too. His almost immediate return had shocked everybody. So, maybe he would hike back up here. She scanned the slopes for movement but only found dead calm.
Sam grabbed her lunch from her pack and picked out chunks of chicken breast from her sandwich. She heard a loud growl that startled her. It was her stomach, reminding her that she had skipped breakfast that morning. Her mouth watered from the smell and she took a gulp of water, swallowing hard. He needed it more, she thought.
She threw a small bit of chicken in front of the dog’s face and watched as his nose twitched with intense, fragmented sniffs. He let out a suspicious huff and stopped his inspection to fix his eyes on Sam. He was now scrutinizing the human who was giving him something he probably wasn’t used to. Kindness.
“It’s okay, puppy. Take it.” Sam picked up another small piece of chicken, held it out to the dog so he could see what it was, then popped it into her mouth, chewed and swallowed. “See? It’s good, buddy. Eat.”
The dog looked back at the food in front of him. After another lengthy pause, a long, pink tongue slowly emerged, cautiously licked at it, then scooped it up.
Sam threw more pieces of chicken onto the ground. He took each piece slowly, carefully sniffing out the chunks, testing them with licks before committing and then chewing for ages as though he was savoring his last meal. Each morsel seemed to take longer to eat than the last.
Sam squinted into the distance, trying to determine whether the tiny dots down the hill were moving, growing larger, more dangerous. Was that speck on the left walking uphill? She chewed on her lower lip. She would have to keep an eye on that one.
She crept towards the dog, pushing the faraway cubes closer. With a sudden upwards jerk, the dog lifted his head and licked her hand. He could move! And he could have bitten her, but he had kissed her instead. Sam felt cold air rush into her mouth and realized that she was beaming. She hadn’t smiled like this in a long, long time.
She slowly reached out and gently stroked his neck. The dog let out a deep moan, like an old man full of stiffness and pain. He tried to give her another kiss, but his head collapsed to the ground with a thud instead. It must have taken all of his energy just to move that one little bit, she thought.
“You need more food, buddy. More fuel. Eat, so we can get out of here.” The dog ate a banana and slices of apple just as slowly as he had eaten the chicken, although he had started to gently take the food straight from her hand. Minutes ticked by. She poured water into her sandwich container and placed it in front of the dog. He lapped it up quickly. She then emptied her water bottle and the dog drank it all, licking the container dry.
She checked the time and rubbed her thumb back and forth on the watch face, as though she could scrub back the numbers, regain lost minutes. This was taking much longer than she had expected.
“You must feel at least a little better now, don’t you buddy? I need you to be strong, okay? Now let’s get up and get going.”
The dog stared at her.
“You’re such a good dog. Do you know that? But we have to go now. That boy could be back here any minute.”
The dog blinked twice.
Sam glanced around her. The shadows from the trees had moved quite a bit in the time that she was there. Patches of snow that had glistened and sparkled under the sunlight during her hike uphill were now dark, shaded and cold. Pine needles that had stood frozen on tree branches now swayed back and forth, restless from the cool breeze. Just like that, like a flick of a switch, the mood had shifted.
Sam thought again of Wesley’s threat and felt a burst of anxiety. “See this? Last slice of apple, buddy! Want it? Come on, you can have it if you just follow me. Mmmm. So tasty.” She pretended to take a bite.
The dog stared at her with desperate, longing eyes, but he didn’t budge. No matter what she tried, the dog wouldn’t move. She threw bits of bread down the trail, pushed on his body to try to roll him onto his feet, took out a rope, tied it around his neck and shoulders and pulled on it like a leash. It was useless. Even though Sam could see each of the dog’s ribs on his balding, emaciated body, he was still too big and heavy for her to lift and carry down the mountain by herself.
Sam took a deep breath as she peered downhill. Where did that left dot go? Glancing around her, she imagined someone jumping out at her from behind a tree. Too much time was being wasted.
She took out her cell phone and snapped a few photos of the dog and the area.
“911. Pls bring skidoo just NW of Fool’s Bluff on Garage Sale Trail. URGENT EMERGENCY!!!” She attached a picture to her text message and clicked ‘Send.’ Please Dad, she prayed.
“Not Delivered,” the phone responded. “No network connection,” it displayed in small text at the top. The image of her satellite phone sliding down the hill flashed through her mind.
Sam cursed as she threw her phone back into her backpack. Things were not going as planned at all today.
“Please come, buddy! We have to go! That boy wants to kill you. But we’re not going to let that happen, right?” Sam paused, recognizing that all of her ideas on how to save the dog had failed, just like how her efforts to protect her mom and the baby had backfired. I can’t let that happen again. Her stomach clenched. Before she realized it, her eyes had welled up with tears. Suddenly she was back there, on the floor, holding her mom’s hand at the market that morning months ago. “I tried to protect them too,” she whispered.
Sam looked out towards the ski runs on Mount Blue and beyond. In the distance, White Fang stuck out atop Mount Deeman and her gaze rested on the white peak for a moment, her thoughts drifting to the memory of her first trip there when she was eleven.
She had dreamed about it for years — it was a big challenge at the time. She was determined to climb the icy peak, but she had to save money from her paper route, pet-sitting and other odd jobs to pay for crampons and ice tools. When the day came that she could finally afford the gear to make the climb, she couldn’t sleep for a week.
It was a special trip in so many ways. With her dad at work, she and her mom had set out early together. Sam was bursting during the car ride, unable to sit still, to stop chattering, to contain her giggles, and when they stopped mid-mountain for a small break, she couldn’t help but take her ice gear out to try on again, just as she had done every day in her room since she had bought the items. She had been careless in putting her crampons away though, tying them to the outside of her bag in her eagerness to get to White Fang. It wasn’t until they were ready to start ice climbing that she had realized her crampons had come loose. They had most likely fallen down a cliff while they were walking along a ridge to White Fang. Sam had burst into tears immediately, devastated at the loss of the crampons, but more so for failing to conquer the challenge she had set out for herself. Her mom didn’t even try to console her. Instead, she removed the crampon from her left boot and handed it to Sam.
“It’s not new and fancy like yours were, but these never let my dad down and they’ve never let me down. And today, they’re not going to let us down,” her mom told her. She raised her eyebrows at Sam. “Well? Don’t just sit there looking at me like that. Put it on and let’s get going, sweetie. That peak is calling your name, can’t you hear it?”
It wasn’t easy climbing, but they scaled the short distance to the top and back using a crampon on just one foot and an ice tool in each hand. Getting to the top of White Fang was great, but smashing this goal was all the sweeter because of the extra problem that they had faced together and overcome. Sam hadn’t even been mad about losing her crampons that day. In fact, it was one of her favorite memories of the trip. We totally crushed it, she thought, smiling.
With sudden resolve, Sam looked down at the dog and wiped her eyes. She had made up her mind. “You are not dying today, buddy.”
Wesley readied the rifle. Remembering what he had learned from one of his favorite video games, he hunched his shoulders forward, bent over and inched ahead, tiptoeing carefully to minimize the noise from his footsteps. Slowly, he crept uphill. With one eye closed and the other staring through the scope, he stopped abruptly and let out his breath. Other than the blood stains in the snow, there was nothing around to indicate that anything was ever there. The monster had disappeared.
“That…that thing…it was barely alive! It could hardly move! What the….” Wesley felt the camera stay on him for a few beats longer before Drew resumed his broadcast.
“Alright, alright, so look here people. This is where Wes must have gotten injured, judging by all this blood. Buuuuuuuut, where is the rabid animal that caused all the destruction?” Drew turned the camera full circle, capturing Wesley looking disoriented. “Yo Wesley! This looks like the spot, but…Oh, hey! What’s this? Is this…bread? Yo, why’s there bread here, guys? Wait a minute! Wesley, I got it. Was it a giant rabid Pillsbury Doughboy that attacked you, man?”
Drew’s boisterous cackle rang in Wesley’s ears and echoed down the mountain. Wesley felt blood rushing to his cheeks as he watched Ben raise his eyebrows at Drew, let out a sigh of relief and laugh along with his friend.
“Alright, alright, alright. There we have it folks. The conclusion to our hunt today. We came up short, but we will definitely keep an eye out for extremely dangerous, life-threatening, rabid Pillsbury Doughboys around town. Any last words, Wes?”
Drew pointed the camera at Wesley, who was now bright red and glowering at the lens. With his mouth set in a hard line, he bent down and picked up a small black fragment, inspecting it closely.
“No? Alright then people. Thank you for tuning in!”
Drew hit the ‘Stop’ button to end the video just as it captured Wesley mumble, “That stupid cow.”
Sam had strung her trekking pole through the suspenders of her ski pants and then through the arms of her jacket. After rolling the dog into the jacket, which had been lined with her sweater, she had pulled the pant legs back over the dog and around the pole, forming a makeshift stretcher. Her sweater would soften any bumps the dog would feel during the ride, she hoped.
Sam had tried pushing first. That failed. She and the stretcher had hit a patch of ice and she ended up flat on her face while the dog flew downhill alone, narrowly missing a tree. She realized then that the push technique would not work if, ultimately, her goal was to keep the dog alive.
Then she remembered her climbing rope, which she tied to both ends of the pole, and used it to pull the stretcher. She walked backwards, forwards and sideways, depending on which position hurt least or worked best for whichever obstacle she was trying to pass. She had assumed that the trek down the mountain would be easy since gravity and ice would help. But she was wrong. It was tougher than she had expected. She had spent almost as much time falling as she had hiking, and now her long underwear was completely soaked through from all her slips, slides, rolls and somersaults. Most of her tumbles were caused by her trying to maintain her forward momentum while constantly checking behind her.
At least Sam had succeeded in moving the dog away from Fool’s Bluff and closer to the safety of the village. But they weren’t safe yet. Out here, she was all alone. And there was still a long, long way to go.