Loud, excited barking came from the front yard. He must be home, I thought. I opened the front door and walked outside. I took in the group at a glance.
“Where are Swiftfoot and Mak?” I asked, suddenly afraid.
“It’s no matter,” he said dismissively, and continued to lead the dogs to their kennels around the back of the house.
“Dad?” I called, my voice rising.
He didn’t stop. He just said gruffly, without looking at me, “They could not stand up to the Iditarod, but it does not matter—because I won again.”
I felt still and cold. Those dogs had been my friends for years—faithful, cheerful, always glad to see me, always -willing to run in any weather in order to please. Now I had lost them to the Iditarod, the thing I hated most in the entire world! I still had enough sense to realize I couldn’t confront my father. There had been so many fights about the Iditarod and the dogs throughout the years, and I knew he would just get mad and say I had to “Harden up!” and “Get used to it,” in order to “Follow in his footsteps.”
“Here, let me do that,” I said, taking the leather leashes out of his hands. He jerked them back.
“I may be fifty, but I can still take care of business myself!” he snapped. “And I have a new trophy to prove it!”
That did it. I couldn’t stand it any longer. “How can you act so . . . so . . . normal?” I shouted. “How can you care about the stupid trophy when two dogs died so you could have it?!”
“Why don’t you grow up?!” he retorted. “Lots of dogs die in the race; dogs die every year, it’s not as if it’s just mine.”
“That just makes it worse!” I cried, and my voice was suddenly high and shrill and I was afraid I was going to cry. There was so much I could have said, but I couldn’t trust myself. And I had said it all so many times before.
Dad turned around and stood squarely in front of me. His face was now an ugly red color, but he spoke in a deadly quiet voice.
“I’m sick of this!” he said. “You happen to be all I have. You’ve always known you’d be taking over from me in the race some day, so you’d better start getting used to it!”
* * *
I was still for a moment. My lower lip shook trying to hold back tears. I turned and ran into the backyard where the older, retired dogs and the puppies were housed. I went straight to two special kennels. Bluemoon scampered out of the first; Icewalker stepped quietly out of the second. I knew they would help me calm down, these two dear companions who were so different. I loved them both so much—Bluemoon because she always made me laugh, and Icewalker because she was so peaceful and serious.
As I knelt in the rough grass, stroking them, I was struck by how much my father had changed. When had this coldhearted person replaced my caring dad? Almost before I finished the question though, I knew the answer. It was when I was still very young. My mother had been a veterinarian who took time off from her practice to work during the Iditarod race each year, even though she hated it. She thought she was needed there, because it was so brutal. The last time I saw her, she said she was just going to look for a runaway dog that had been lost. It had torn loose from its harness and escaped just before its team started off to the next checkpoint. Not wanting to lose time, the musher had used a replacement dog and left. They found my mother the next morning, frozen to death. The lost dog turned up later and was fine. When I was old enough to realize what had happened, I blamed the Iditarod—unlike my dad, who blamed the dog, and had taken it out on our own dogs ever since. I suddenly realized how much better it would have been if my father had given way to his grief, rather than keeping it inside and turning it into anger.
I returned to the present, if anything more upset than before, to find Ice and Blue looking at me, obviously worried. Seeing them reminded me I had just lost two more of the dearest beings in my life, Mak and Swiftfoot.
Suddenly I had an idea. I had had enough. I would run away with Blue and Ice. I admit I didn’t think very far ahead. In fact, I acted on impulse. Quietly, I went inside the house and got some light snow gear, and returned to the yard where the dogs were waiting. Leaving the yard through the gate at the back, we went into the woods behind our property.
* * *
We walked for a long time. I was still so upset I didn’t bother to check my compass or pay much attention at all to where we were going. After what seemed like hours, I realized we hadn’t seen any houses, so I finally checked the compass—to find we had been heading not east, as I had assumed, but north. I suddenly felt tired, so tired I could barely think. I decided to have a quick rest before we moved on. I pulled off my backpack to use as a pillow, curled up in a hollow on the ground with the dogs next to me, and was immediately asleep.
* * *
Several hours later, I opened my eyes to a world of white and a changed landscape. I was shivering in my thin jacket, and night had fallen. I sat up, shaking snow from my hair and eyes, and realized we were in the middle of a blizzard.
“Bluemoon!” I called, seeing no one. The snow next to me erupted and Bluemoon emerged. “Icewalker!” A blue-white mound behind me came alive, and there was Icewalker. They shook the snow from their fur and pushed me up. I looked around. I hadn’t had much idea of our whereabouts even before the blizzard, but now I had none at all. My compass was still, the needle frozen to the glass. I shook it in vain. I suddenly realized that I would probably have frozen too, had it not been for the dogs’ warmth. Already the snow was collecting on my eyelashes, making it hard to see. I began to feel seriously afraid. Here I was, lightly dressed, in a blizzard, with no shelter, barely able to see a foot in front of me—and to make things worse, I was lost with a frozen compass!
All of a sudden, I heard my mother’s voice. It was something she had told me long ago: “Dogs have senses we humans can only dream of. They can find a piece of meat under two feet of snow from a mile away.” It had fascinated me when she told me about it, and now it gave me an idea: could the dogs get us home?
“Bluemoon? Icewalker?” I said. They both looked up at me, tails waving gently “Home!” I said, hoping I sounded strong and confident.
I struggled into my wet backpack, and turned to follow them as they headed into the trees. I tried to hurry, but the snow was too deep. I forced my cold feet to move through the snow after them, step by step. We must have trudged through the darkness for several hours before I saw light coming through the falling flakes between the trees. We were home! At that moment I was so glad to see the house that I wasn’t thinking of why we had left to begin with.
* * *
As I stumbled into the yard, I was amazed at the bright lights, trucks and people everywhere. Search parties! My father caught sight of me and ran over. With not a trace of his usual bad temper, he lifted me off the ground and hugged me so hard I could barely breathe.
“Where were you? What happened?! How did you make it?!” he cried, all at once.
“I ran away,” I said simply “The dogs saved me.”
He sat down hard, right there in the snow.
“Dad,” I said in a rush, “it wasn’t the dogs’ fault that this happened, and it wasn’t a dog’s fault that Mom died, and she wouldn’t have wanted you to blame them. And you know she never would have wanted you to make them run the Iditarod—she hated it!”
Without anger or a moment’s hesitation, he said, “I do know, but I guess I hate feeling helpless, and I was helpless to save your mother. At least in the Iditarod I feel I can control some things!”
We were still sitting there in the snow, with the dogs, surrounded by bright lights, as if we were having a normal conversation—except that it wasn’t normal, for us.
“Dad, there are so many other things in life you can control—good things!” I said. “You don’t have to be angry all the time. I need you, and the dogs need you!”
He looked at me and suddenly his face seemed younger, and I was reminded of the dad I remembered from long ago. “I wish I could take it all back,” he said. “You are the most important thing in the world to me, and the dogs saved you!”
I think I started crying then. He pulled the dogs closer and hugged all of us.
* * *
And that was definitely my greatest adventure.
My dad stopped being a musher right then and there, and he quit the Iditarod.
He became my greatest supporter during the long, hard years of study . . . to become the veterinarian I am now.