Monday, March 16, 2020

Number Seventeen by William Falo

William Falo's character is appalled by the treatment of racing dogs in Alaska.

Ten dogs pulled the sled toward me and the checkpoint as the musher urged them to go faster. Usually, they were slowing down. A checkpoint was a chance for the dogs to rest, but he kept urging them to go faster despite me waving at him from the side of the trail.

"On by," he called out.

I stopped waving when I saw the lead dog starting to pull the sled toward me.

"Whoa." The musher yanked the sled back toward the center of the trail, but the lead dog's legs gave out and it slid sideways causing the ones behind to trip over it. The sled spun sideways and headed straight toward me. I froze unsure of which way to go. How do you stop an oncoming dog sled? The answer was that you don't even try. In a feeble attempt, I put my hands up. The mass of dogs and sled took out my knees and I became part of the sliding wreck.

By the time we stopped, there was a pile of dogs in the snow with me on top of the sled. The dogs slowly got up except for the lead dog. It whimpered and stayed down on the snow.

"Damn you." The musher pointed at me. Steam came out of his nostrils like a bull ready to charge.

"I thought you were stopping." I wiped the snow off my coat and looked at the hole in my pants around my knee. The snow pants cost a fortune in Alaska. Pain flared through my knee.

"What's your name? I'm reporting you to the race officials. You distracted my lead dog." He marched toward me.

"Maggie." I limped backward.

"I'm going to win this race despite your incompetence. Now, help me get those dogs sorted out and unhook the lead one."

"They need a rest."

"Are you a veterinarian?"

"No, a vet tech."

"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. A few cried out when he moved them. He was rougher than most of the other mushers I encountered. I stepped toward him and he made some threatening grunts. I hesitated.

"What's the dog's name?" I asked.

"Which one?"

"The one you're leaving here."

"She's Seventeen. I'll pick her up after the race." The sled pulled away and I watched as he made frantic motions forcing the dogs to run faster. Their breaths caused little puffs of smoke to drift into the air until they faded into the woods.

Number Seventeen watched the other ones run away with a longing clearly visible in her eyes. Their barks faded away.

I petted Number Seventeen. "I know you wanted to go with them."

The dog looked down. I touched her legs and body. Nothing seemed to make her flinch.

"Why aren't you in more pain?" I heard rumors about painkillers being used on the sled dogs. That would mask any pain, but the injuries would hurt even worse later. Number Seventeen limped and showed obvious injuries even without the pain. Her paws were bloody.

I looked toward the road. Martin, the race official, was scheduled to arrive soon. He was very strict and would just give the dog back to the musher. I knew what happened to sled dogs that can't race. They weren't kept as pets.

"I'll take care of you Seventeen." I carried her to my car and put her in the backseat and covered her with blankets that everyone in Alaska carried in their cars unless they were careless. I always kept supplies in my car. My knee started to feel better; I was fortunate it wasn't worse. I started to drive away then I saw Martin driving toward me.

I pretended not to see him and left the checkpoint knowing he would be furious that I didn't talk to him, but a dog's life was at stake and I was tired of him asking me out. Being thirty and single was a curse here. Everyone here thinks a woman should have a husband and kids by the age of twenty-five in Alaska. I was happy alone, especially since I only met jerks and the official was in that category.

I stayed next to Seventeen all night inside my house next to a warm fire. She slept for a long time, exhausted from running through the snow for far too long. In the morning, my phone vibrated.

"Maggie. Bring the dog back." Martin said. "A musher claimed you have it."

"Martin, 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 needs medical care."

"That's not up to you."

"She doesn't even have a name. He calls her Number Seventeen, 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. We can talk about -"

I cut him off. "If she can't run, he will kill her."

"You don't know that."

"I do know it." I hung up. Many dog sled owners euthanized any dog that couldn't race. They were called surplus dogs and killed if they weren't fast enough.

"Seventeen. What happened to the other sixteen dogs before you? There were only ten on the sled team." She whimpered in response.

I picked up a picture of my parents from the shelf closest to me. A dog stood alongside

them in front of their airplane. Timber was the dog's name. I couldn't go with them that day because of school. Their plane crashed in the wilderness and there were no survivors.

I wiped my eyes and carried Seventeen out to the car.

My phone rang. It was the musher.

"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."

"I don't care."

He raised his voice. "Damn you. It's my dog. I'll see to it that you never work in Alaska."

"Yea, we'll I can go to the press or the internet about the dog's condition."

"They won't believe you."

"I'm going to get a blood test done."

The line remained silent.

I added, "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 ownership papers to the clinic when you get there." He hung up.

In the waiting room, every time a dog barked or whimpered, I winced.

When the veterinarian came out, I jumped up.

"Her feet are painful but will recover with care. I bandaged all of them. I'll get the results of the blood tests in a couple of days. There might be drugs in her system. We will see."

Tears ran down my cheeks. "Thank you."

"Do you want to see her?"

"Yes." I walked back and Seventeen looked up at me when I came into the room. I hugged her and felt warm licks on my neck.

"She is happy to see you."

"Me too."

"Oh, I got these ownership papers from the fax machine while you were waiting."

I took them and smiled. Now we were a family. I could take care of Seventeen, but I must remain silent about the abuse. That was the deal. It was a deal with the devil, but at least I got to keep Seventeen.

I thought about changing her name, but the dog was used to it and maybe it could serve as a reminder of what she went through and that other sled dogs were still in danger.



I gripped the computer when I read about the dogs that died at a recent race or that were killed because they weren't fast enough to make the dogsled team. The musher who previously owned Seventeen was in that race too. I wiped my eyes when I read the descriptions of bloody paws and about the drugs used on the sled dogs then held Seventeen close to me for a long time. The blood test showed pain killers were used on her the day of her last race. I clenched my fists when I thought about it.

"It's time for a new name and a new direction," I said. "We've been silent too long." The dog looked into my eyes and licked my hand. Her paws still looked bad, but she walked a little better every week. We walked out the door one step at a time down a path through the snow. A neighbor worked for a local newspaper and he was always looking for new stories. He was single and the one man I would consider dating. I smiled and headed toward his house. I might remain anonymous, but even if I reveal my name, I would never let anyone hurt Seventeen again.

10 comments:

  1. Eye-opening if that's how they treat sled dogs. Interesting use of a dog as a main character. Very good dialogue.

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  2. For excellent tales about the Klondike and sled dogs I highly recommend the short stories of Jack London, or his book Call of the Wild.

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  3. A difficult read in places -- as it needed to be to convey an important message. Well done.

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  4. I love this story--compassion and empathy throughout. Maggie is very likeable--an independent courageous individual who is not afraid to confront people who are uncaring and indifferent. Although a fictional character, she represents the best of humanity. The story made me think of the lack of courage we see in our culture (I'm American) and our politics. If Maggie were real and could run for president, I'd vote for her in a second. This story lifted my spirits, and I am certain, was uplifting to others. There are too many instances of hate and indignity taking place all over the world. Anyone who loves animals is a hero to me. The characterization, immediate conflict, and final conflation of two story threads--the possibility of a good person (the journalist) in Maggie's life and the dog having a kind caretaker made me smile. A well-crafted story with heart by a skillful writer. These days, we need more stories like this one. Thank you, William Falo.

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  5. Sounds like a sport full of cruelty. Sad if this is the norm. I hope some of the mushers treat their dogs better than the one portrayed in this tale.

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  6. Unfortunately so many opportunities for animal cruelty or neglect in sports, entertainment, and commerce. Thank you, William Falo, for this compassionate read.

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  7. Very believable information and detail. Wish the evil musher could've suffer for his actions. Happy one of the team was rescued.

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  8. melissacparker@comcast.netMarch 18, 2020 at 2:12 PM

    I had no idea sled dogs are treated this way-- heartbreaking. I was very touched by Maggie's kindness and determination in keeping Seventeen and getting her medical treatment. Great character development!
    I took a dogsled ride in Utah with my daughter a few years ago that was absolutely unforgettable. Seeing those beautiful, strong dogs' bodies in motion was breathtaking.

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  9. Thank you for all the comments.

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