Chapter 1: Childhood
He was playing in the snow, rolling in it and tangling himself in the rope securing him to the small wooden dog house in the front yard. The rope wrapped itself around him as he played, but it never bothered him because he loved the feel of the snow in his fur. It was a cooling, refreshing feeling that had him imagining the day he’d become a sled dog, pulling sleds faster than any dog ever could. He’d be the dog that pulled the winning sled in the Iditarod.
That day was a long way away, he realized, because he had some growing up to do. He was only a pup, and the race required the biggest, strongest dogs to pull sleds through miles of unremitting blizzards and obstacles. It required the bravest, most dependable dogs there were, and he firmly believed he could be one of those dogs.
As he continued to roll in the snow, something interesting caught his eye. He stopped to look at the sled propped against his owner’s log cabin. Its call was irresistible, so he ran to it, realizing too late it was out of reach as the rope pulled at his neck and slammed him flat onto his back and into the snow.
He recovered, picking himself up as he smiled at the opportunity that awaited him. The sled was out of reach, but the harness wasn’t. He went to it, pulling the straps over his head, around his neck and chest.
It was a loose fit, and the tall, brown-eyed man beside him laughed. “Whoa, Husky,” the man said, slipping the harness off him and setting it high on the sled. “You’re not ready for this yet, but don’t worry.” He rested a gloved hand on the pup’s head. “You will be soon enough.”
Husky barked in agreement, and the man stood, smiling back at the pup before disappearing inside the cabin.
Husky whined, seeing the sled out of reach, but he’d have his chance soon enough. Just keep growing, he told himself.
As he made his way back toward the familiar dog house, Husky was anticipating another dull, race-less day. It’d just be like any other day, he was convincing himself, then he heard something.
He stopped at the brim of the dog house and searched the suspected area. At first he saw nothing, but standing at the edge of his property with fur as white as snow was a small, fragile-looking wolf whose howl was so youthful and underdeveloped he knew she couldn’t be any older than he.
He moved toward her as far as the rope would permit and stopped to look at her. She was lying in the snow, her face tucked between two paws.
Husky cocked his head. “Hey,” he said, watching as the pup lifted her tiny head from the snow and looked in his direction. “Why are you so blue?”
She stood with a jolt, trembling as she backed away.
“No, no! Please don’t go. I’m, uh . . .” He sat in the snow, hoping the decrease in stature would make him appear less intimidating. “I’m Husky the husky, but as you can see, I’m not so husky. Not yet anyway, but I will be when I grow up.” His black-and-white face lit up, and he made an enlarging gesture with his paws. “I’ll be the biggest, strongest dog the world ever saw, and I’ll pull sleds through the toughest blizzards the sky can throw at me! And—” He looked at the pup again, watching as she stilled but realizing he was beginning to ramble. “And, uh, you’re a wolf, aren’t you?”
Still the pup said nothing, and Husky began to wonder if she’d been around humans long enough to master the language like he had.
“You probably can’t talk yet,” he concluded, “but, hey, if you stick with me long enough, maybe you’ll start to pick it up. You see, I talk a lot, and, well, it’d be nice to have someone to talk to once in a while. Humans don’t understand, but you will, I’m sure. So if you could just come a little closer, you might be able to hear me better.”
The pup approached with caution.
“That’s it. Keep coming. I won’t bite.”
Just a few more feet and trust would be established between the two. Two more steps, one more step, then she was there.
“See?” Husky said. “I’m just a dog. Like you, I guess, but you’ll be bigger than me when we grow up because you’re a wolf, and wolves are big. I’ve only seen one before, but I’ll always remember it, and um—” He looked at the pup, who stared blankly at Husky. “Do you have a name?” he asked her. “I mean, I know you can’t talk, but maybe you could act it out or something—give me a hint? Something?”
“Okay, well, maybe I could name you, something that suits you like, uh, Wolfie or Snowball or— No, wait. I’ve got something even better. My owner always talks about going on a trip to the capital of Alaska, some place called Juneau. I don’t know, I just always liked that name, so what do you think?”
Still the pup said nothing, but she did something else that Husky could’ve never seen coming; she curled up next to him in the snow, her head resting on his paw and her tail tapping the snow with comfort.
Husky’s heart skipped a beat. “Juneau it is.”
Many layers of snow later, Husky awoke with a yawn, then an immediate smile as he prepared to spring out of the dog house and surprise her as she’d done to him many times before. He’d get her back, then they’d laugh and wrestle until someone was pinned. Someone would give in, and they’d laugh some more. They just did what any close friends did, and they were as close as close could be.
In one quick motion, Husky sprang from the dog house into the open with a weak bark intended to scare his friend, Juneau, but where was she? She wasn’t hiding by the opening like she normally would be when she tried to startle him, and she wasn’t still asleep. The side of the dog house he’d reserved for her was empty.
As something heavy came down over his head, he realized with disappointment he’d been outwitted yet again, because Juneau had been on the roof of the dog house, waiting for that perfect moment when he’d jump out onto the imaginary target she’d visualized in the snow.
They wrestled and giggled a while, reaching the inevitable resolution of Husky coming out on top and pinning Juneau beneath him, but with one free paw, Juneau reached up, scooped some snow, and tossed it into Husky’s face, giggling again as she made her witty escape and hurried toward the snowy woods.
Husky shook the snow from his fur and started after her, but the rope was quick to stop him. He felt the familiar jerk at his neck as the ground fell from under his feet and met bluntly with his back instead.
“Oh!” Juneau said, stopping and hurrying back toward her fallen friend. “I forgot. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Husky said, shaking snow from his black-and-white fur and sitting up. He tugged at the restraining rope with his paw. “I just wish I didn’t have to be tied to this thing.”
Juneau eyed the rope with contemplation. “I can free you,” she said, smiling a confident smile.
He shook his head. “Huh-uh. I’ve tried everything, Juneau. Nothing works.”
Juneau had the rope in her mouth, biting down on it with her sharp, wolf teeth but releasing it again. “Well, how sharp are your teeth?” she asked.
“Not sharp enough, and neither are yours. Trust me.”
She didn’t listen to him. Instead, she picked the rope back up in her mouth and bit down as hard as she could, lowering her head to get more leverage from her paw, but it was pointless.
“See?” Husky said as she gave up on the rope. “It’s pointless. I’m stuck here.”
Juneau felt awful seeing her friend so down and knowing she couldn’t do anything to help. She looked at him again, seeing the hopelessness in his eyes, then felt something involuntary building in her throat.
It was a feeling she’d had only once before, but she knew what it meant. She raised her head toward the sky and prepared herself before the long howl released itself from her throat. Still rough and underdeveloped, but it’d sound better with age.
“What did you do that for?” Husky asked, listening in awe to the howls echoing off the mountains with perfect clarity.
“I do that when I get a strong feeling,” Juneau replied.
Husky nodded, watching the mountains and listening to the howl as it echoed, echoed, then gradually faded into nothing. “What was the feeling?” he asked, turning to face Juneau again.
She looked at the rope that refused to break and threw snow onto it, as if in retaliation. “Sadness.”
Husky thought hard a moment, his eyes aimed at the snow near his paws, then near Juneau’s paws. He chuckled at his failed attempt to distinguish her paws from the white crystals. “You don’t have to be sad for me,” he said, meeting her gaze again. “I like it here, and just because I’m tied down doesn’t mean you should be, too.”
“Huh-uh,” Juneau said, picking up the hint in his voice. “You’re my friend, and I’m staying here, with you.” She reached out to him with her paw and nudged him slightly, smiling a friendly smile which Husky was quick to return.
“You’re my friend, too,” he said sweetly.
They looked at each other a long moment, then at the sky as the snowflakes started to fall.
“Hey,” Juneau said, her eyes trained on the sky.
Husky looked at her. “Yeah?” he said.
She was smiling before her eyes met his again. “Howl with me,” she said, the childish smile on her face changing quickly into a cunning one.
Husky gave a confused look. “Like that thing you just did?” he asked.
“I don’t know if I can; not like that.”
“Come on. Just try it, please?”
It was something about her striking blue eyes that had always had a major influence on him. Maybe it was that they were small and innocent-looking, reminding him of the day he’d found her alone in the snow—the day she’d maybe wandered from her pack and ended up by Husky’s property. At least that was what he wanted to believe, because he knew how valuable a snow wolf’s skin was and that a lot of hunting went on in that area, especially for snow wolves. Maybe her pack wasn’t lucky.
Still so small and innocent, he thought, observing her eyes with sympathy. How could he say no to her?
In the bitter cold of the Alaskan hills, he and Juneau both raised their heads toward the dull gray sky and howled in perfect harmony.
“Stay hidden,” Husky said as he stepped into open snow toward his calling owner.
It was that time again. Every so often, his owner would see how fit he was to race. He’d grown significantly since the day he was adopted, as his owner had pointed out. He was getting bigger, stronger, and healthier all the time.
He couldn’t hold back the excitement he felt. Knowing he could be up for the challenge made him so happy, and he couldn’t wait.
“When the blizzards are at their roughest,” his owner was saying, kneeling in the snow. “I’ll have to take you out to train some. You need to be prepared for the worst weather conditions. That means snow, sleet, temperatures at minus fifty, and wind—lots and lots of wind. Can you handle it?”
Husky barked an enthusiastic bark in reply, and the man stood.
“I know you can.” The man ruffled Husky’s fur and moved toward the door, awarding the pup one last encouraging smile before disappearing inside.
Husky smiled big. “Juneau!” he called, hurrying toward the dog house where his friend waited. “I’m going to be a sled dog!”
“That’s awesome!” Juneau said, stepping out into the cold as Husky came to a stop before her.
“I know it is!” His blue eyes glowed with excitement. “It’ll be the coldest and the harshest, the most exciting challenge ever, and—!”
“Can I go, too?”
Husky’s heart sank. He knew Juneau had to stay, hidden from the people—the people who might want her skin, but how could he tell her that? How could he tell her that, to a hunter, she was a walking coat; that she wasn’t the dog she’d grown up convincing herself she was but was instead a wolf? “Juneau, I . . .” He paused a moment, thinking of an excuse. “The race is just for huskies. They wouldn’t let you race.”
“I don’t want to race,” Juneau said, shaking her head at the misinterpretation. “I want to watch.”
“But don’t you want to stay here? You’ve got this nice, cozy dog house to stay in and a rope to play with and—”
“Husky, I want to go. Husky or not, is there a rule that says a regular dog can’t just watch the race?”
“But you’re not a regular dog!” Husky stopped himself just in time. He could sense the look of uncertainty on Juneau’s face, but his eyes didn’t dare meet hers. He was thinking hard, hoping something would come to him. “I mean you’re not a regular dog,” he continued, “because you’re a rare breed, and rare breeds are worth a lot of money.” There it is, he thought. The perfect excuse. “So suppose there were some greedy spectators out there. They see you, realize you’re a rare breed, kidnap you and sell you to someone else—someone who lives somewhere far from here. Somewhere far from me.”
Juneau was hit hard by the realization. She didn’t want to be kidnapped, sold like some grocery item to someone she probably wouldn’t like or taken somewhere Husky wasn’t.
She hung her head, understanding why she couldn’t go. “So that’s why you make me hide when the man comes outside,” she said. “You don’t want him to sell me.”
That was one concern, Husky thought, but he hadn’t told her the whole truth and felt guilty. He just wanted to protect her without having to see her live in fear of what people did to her kind. He wanted her to be safe, but happy, too, and the smile on her face confirmed it was working.
“I’ll never doubt you again.”
“Do you have to go?” Juneau asked, looking down at her smaller friend.
“Yeah,” Husky said with a sigh. He was excited at the opportunity he was getting, but the thought of being so far from Juneau crushed that, making it almost not worth it. “I’ll just be gone a little while. I have to train for the race, but no one will be here to refill the food dish, so will you be okay?”
“Yeah,” she said unconvincingly. “I’ve got instincts, so food won’t be a problem.”
“And you’ll have the whole dog house to yourself, so that’ll be exciting, right?”
Juneau nodded at that, hanging her head. When her eyes met his again, she moved closer, rubbing against him in a form of quadrupedal hug. “You’ll be the fastest sled dog there ever was,” she said. “You’ll beat them all. I know you will.”
Husky chuckled. “You have so much confidence in me,” he said.
“Because I believe in you.”
He smiled as Juneau stepped back to face him again.
“And you deserve to win.”
Husky looked at Juneau, then toward the log cabin, expecting at some point for his owner to come out and take him away from there for a long time. “I wish you could come with me,” he said. “I could use the motivation.”
Juneau knew she couldn’t go with him, but at the same time she also knew she didn’t want him to feel alone where he was going. Right about then the gray clouds above began to part, revealing a narrow ray of sun which beamed down on them like a spotlight on their glistening coats.
Juneau looked at the sun a moment, then toward the shadows she and Husky were casting. “See the shadow you’re casting?” she said, motioning toward the shadow with her head. “When I’m not around, look for that shadow. It’ll be me egging you on.”
Husky looked at his shadow, easily imagining it was Juneau and not the phenomenon resulting from his obstruction of the sun’s light. “And when I’m not around,” he paraphrased, shifting his attention toward Juneau’s shadow, “look for your shadow. It’ll be me ready to tackle you.”
Juneau burst with laughter, and Husky joined her, feeling the familiar warmth he always felt when he heard her laugh. Somehow he knew he was going to miss the feeling.
“You’d better go,” he said, watching the cabin tentatively. “He’ll be coming out here at any moment, and who knows what he’d do if he saw you.”
“Yeah,” Juneau agreed. She started into the woods, but stopped a few feet in. “Husky?”
She paused a moment, her eyes aimed at the snow, then at Husky again. “Don’t forget me.”
Husky smiled an easy smile. “I won’t,” he said.
They held their gaze until the front door creaked open and a tall, thin man wearing a heavy coat and a raccoon-skin cap stepped out. Husky ran to the man, halting when he knew he’d reached his maximum radius. He sat in the snow, his tail wagging as the man reached for his collar and detached the rope.
“You ready to go?” the man said.
Husky barked in reply, and the man leaned down to pick him up.
“Well, come on, Husk. We’ve got some training to do.”
As the man carried him to the truck, Husky was looking over his shoulder for Juneau, hoping to see her one last time. He almost didn’t see her with her brilliantly white fur against the equally white snow, but there she was, coming out of hiding and stopping a few inches from the dog house. She tipped her head back and let out the most beautiful howl.
In response, Husky howled as best as he could manage from his uncomfortable position on the man’s shoulder, and just like that, that was it. That was goodbye.