Written by Arian Mabe (Amethyst Mare)
The sled team shivered. Fresh snow fell in Dawson, ignorant of the exhausted and pad-sore team, which limped to their sleeping spots. The mail run had been wearying, but it was a job that needed to be done and only a reliable team would do. Two dogs were lost on the trail, one to rivalry and one to madness. The second was shot between the eyes.
The lead dog poked his muzzle out from the hollow in the snow, his nest for the evening. His belly growled but he dared not challenge his masters for another scrap of meat or fish, whichever was on offer. He didn't like the hard strips of meat. They hurt his stomach. He could take more than his share, but stealing had to be done craftily, either from under the snouts of starving teammate or when the masters were not looking. The grub box was a dog's gold mine if he could but snake his head inside. The lead dog whined.
Black and white Jack lifted his muzzle higher, scenting the air. There was something strange there, something dog but not dog. It was `not friend'. And `not friend' was searching for something. Growling like a demon, he leaped to his feet, hackles raised and teeth bared, earning him a grumble from a man passing by who could clearly not see the danger. Jack's ear twitched towards the man who shrugged his jerkin closer around his chest, oblivious and intent on getting liquor into his system. Perhaps there was no danger.
Out of the gloom slunk a ragged bitch, her grey fur sticking out in clumps from her skeletal body. She hadn't had a good meal in weeks: that much was obvious. Jack lowered his head defensively and showed his teeth. She wouldn't be getting any of his teammates. She smelt different - wolf-dog. She was neither one nor the other.
The wolf-dog yawned lazily, affecting an unconcerned stance. Snuffing around the snow for a minute or two, her front legs sank down and she stumbled upon an irate husky, who snarled at being disturbed from his cosy hollow, made warm by body heat. She faced him down and slammed her shoulder into his flank, neatly avoiding his flashing teeth while she drove him back. It was a one-sided fight and the husky dipped his muzzle in defeat, only thankful that a ring of dogs was not surrounding him to cut off his retreat - they had all retreated to their night time nests, which they were always loathe to leave. If others had been there to witness his fall, he would not have walked away with nothing more than a few new scars. The wolf-dog stared at Jack, daring him with her eyes.
I can fend for myself, they said, though her protruding ribs told a different tale.
Dogs barked and a man tottered out of a nearby building; Jack didn't know what was inside, but the man had a terrible odour about him. Knowing this, he wisely stepped back a few paces to disappear into the shadows, but the wolf-dog had not his foresight.
``Out of the way, Charmian,'' the man snarled, kicking her in the ribs with the toe of his boot. ``Damn dog. Go on - git!''
She yelped and trotted back a few paces, sharply pointed ears pinned to her skull. Didn't he see her and see her condition? Or did he simply not care? Jack wondered if that man was one of her masters; he knew her name. He felt a stirring of something for the wolf-dog and wagged the tip of his tail. Charmian, was it? Most were called One Ear or Lost Tail but a name was a name to a dog.
Charmian slithered into the sleeping hollow on her belly, confident now that Jack would not attempt to steal it from her as many were apt to do. Survival was the name of the game in this frozen world with life and death as high stakes. Jack shook himself vigorously, flecks of crystalline ice flying off his coat, and loped away, intent on a target that only he could understand.
Jack swaggered past the other dogs, some strays searching for scraps, and made his way behind the log buildings where he knew his current masters slept. Stars twinkled overhead and his breath frosted before his snout, freezing droplets making his nose twitch. He reached a particular, wooden door much like all the others, except it was a rear entrance. Leaping up on his hind legs, he scratched the wood lightly and whined, sure that the sound would carry to its intended ears.
Sure enough, the old man was there, misty eyed and swaying. He opened the door with a grunt as if he was surprised to see Jack there, smiling at him with his mouth lolling comically open.
``What are you doing out here, Jack my boy?'' He murmured softly, glancing back over his shoulder to ensure that he was alone.
They had gone over this charade many nights in the wilderness, so it made no difference to the old man that he was in a cabin and not a tent for this one. Still, he pretended to not understand what Jack was looking for until the dog's plaintive, puppy-like whines appealing to his kinder side, which was scarcer than one could imagine. He knew what Black and White Jack wanted and he drew an overcooked strip of bacon from his overcoat pocket, sending the husky into a silent frenzy.
``Here you go,'' he mumbled, tossing it at the hungry dog. ``Eat it all up now and be gone with you.''
In a flash, Jack was gone, the bacon grasped between his teeth. This time, he didn't bother to flaunt his dominance and sped as straight as an arrow back to the wolf-dog, Charmian. She raised her muzzle curiously at his approach, her nose twitching. Jack paused a moment, salivating over the delicious scrap of meat that would be so easy to devour, but he could not. With a great effort, he crept closer on his belly and deposited the offering before Charmian's nose.
She snapped it up and it was gone in two gulps, her belly hungering for more, but a little sated. She looked curiously to Jack who wagged his tail in an appeasing manner. Seeming to consider him for a moment, she shifted slightly in her sleeping hollow, widening the half-dug whole so as to make room for another. Snuffing happily, Jack touched noses with her and scrabbled at the snow to make room for his bulk, settling down against her warm, furry body once that was done.
Together they stared up at the stars and the dancing lights, forgetting the cold that ruffled their fur and forgetting that tomorrow might bring another day towing a too-heavy sled. They watched and warmed in silence until either one or the other put their muzzle to rest. And they breathed in the interlude to the rush.
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