by Jack Castle
Copyright © 2016 by Jack Castle
Unless you’re the lead dog, the view never changes. Har-har-har.
These were the thoughts of Tom Holden as he stared at the rumps of his dog sled team. He was running the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, traveling through 1,149 miles of the most rugged and cruel landscape of the Last Frontier … and he was in last place.
Holden had never had any illusions about winning. In fact, it surprised him he had made it this far over the harsh tundra, through the jagged mountain passes, and across deadly rivers of ice. He wasn’t a professional musher, not by a long shot. In fact, the only reason he was running this ridiculous test of endurance was the locket hanging around his neck. Inside was a picture of his beautiful nineteen-year-old daughter, Shannon. The picture had been taken before the spinal meningitis did its job and she wasted away before his eyes. These were Shannon’s dogs, not his. Shannon had raised them from pups and trained them. Her dying wish had been that he run her dogs in the Iditarod race. She told him he didn’t have to win or anything. “Just run ’em, dad, run ’em for me.” Now, he wasn’t a musher, but he had helped Shannon train her dogs enough to know what he was doing, and he was damned if he was going to let his little girl down, even if it killed him.
Like every year, print and television journalists, along with crowds of spectators, attended the various checkpoints along the trail. Somehow, word had gotten out about why he was running the race, and the reporters swelled in number at each checkpoint. At the Skwentna checkpoint, it had been the worst. Three-time Iditarod champions were rudely ignored when he had finally sledded into town. It seemed the world couldn’t get enough of a father trying to fulfill his daughter’s dying wish. At least the press had put a nice photo of Shannon in the paper. That had made Shannon’s mother happy, which she hadn’t been for some time.
The trail from the ceremonial start in Anchorage had started out easy enough, sledding over low flat lowlands, and well marked by flags and reflectors. But from there the trail had gotten pretty tough, so much so that mushers started dropping out of the race at a rate of about one every seventy-five miles.
The race had started with forty-two mushers, each with approximately sixteen dogs, but one musher broke her hand right outside of Willow, and another had three of his dogs trampled by a charging moose in “Moose Alley.” Another nine teams had dropped out in a fierce blizzard that had struck them in McGrath. That storm had caused whiteout conditions and sub-zero temperatures. Plus, the gale force winds had erased all the trail markers, making the path hard to follow, but Shannon had programed his GPS, and he had weathered the storm just fine. Shannon had also made sure her dad had all the right gear: food, spare dog booties, headlamps, tools, sled parts for repairs, and spare batteries for his night headlamp, and even a satellite phone. They had made the final preparations for his trip in her hospital room, spreading out maps on the foot of her bed. Shannon had made him study the route as carefully as he had scrutinized maps on missions in Afghanistan as a younger man over twenty years before. The trip planning had become a welcome relief from the constant reminder of her imminent departure.
Holden took small comfort in the fact that he was past the worst stretch of the trail, the Dalzell Gorge, a divide that drops one thousand feet in elevation in five miles. Holden had had to ride the brake most of the way down and sometimes use his snow hook for traction. At the bottom of the gorge, one musher had fallen through an ice bridge and had to be airlifted out, bringing the total mushers left in the race to just thirty. But all of them were more experienced than Holden, so if by some miracle Holden did finish, he knew he was a shoe in for the Red Lantern award.
The banks of the trail were lined with snow-covered alders; quarter-sized snowflakes fell from the sky. For most, the wilderness was inspiring, but Holden felt this portion of the trail was long miles of vast emptiness, and his tired muscles ached for a couple of hours of bunking down at the next checkpoint.
After what seemed like an eternity, the narrow corridor through the woods finally began to widen. As the trees became sparser, Holden could make out a huge bonfire in the town up ahead. He knew from Shannon’s meticulous tutorial that the next checkpoint would be the ghost town of Takotna, a real commercial hub during Alaska’s gold rush days but now, with the exception of Iditarod week, practically a ghost town.
Already he was dreading the host of reporters that would be there to greet him. All he wanted to do was feed his dogs and lie down for some rest, but he’d talk to the reporters for Shannon’s sake, and for her mother’s.
The bonfire seemed bigger than the others, but as the trail broadened into an open field before him, Holden realized … it wasn’t a bonfire that was burning.
It was the town.
Holden pulled on the reins, kicked the brake, and brought his team to a stop. He dropped his snow hook for good measure and dismounted the sled in disbelief.
He yanked off his snow mitts and dropped them on the sled, a decision he would come to regret later. As he raised his goggles onto his forehead, he noted that not all the buildings were on fire. The big buildings on the corners were ablaze, but thus far the remainder of the abandoned town was still unscathed. And thanks to the wet snow, the fires were steadily dying out on their own with minimal risk of spreading.
Where the hell is everybody?
The place should’ve been swarming with reporters, mushers, and invaluable support personnel. Now, there wasn’t a soul to be found. Before venturing deeper into the old town, he noted the dogs were sniffing the air as though their noses were detecting something unfamiliar. Normally, they would be barking with excitement and pulling at their tethers to be free. It was these kinds of observations that had kept him and his squad alive overseas.
Holden began searching the old buildings and saw dropped belongings: backpacks, cameras, clothes, all lying in the middle of the street, where the reporters and spectators must have dropped them. Passing the burning buildings, he approached the tiny Main Street located between two rows of dilapidated buildings. Immediately apparent was a large orange Buick in the middle of the street. The left blinker was flashing and the door was wide open. He could hear the engine still chugging and see vapor puffing out the tailpipe. Whatever had happened here, it couldn’t have been more than a couple of hours ago.
As he rounded the Buick’s trunk, he glanced down and noticed red stains on the snow. The streaks of blood originated from the open car door. They scratched across the powdery snow in the direction of one of the dilapidated buildings, a rickety wooden structure labeled HARDWARE STORE, only most of the letters were partially illegible from neglect. The funny thing was that the blood trails didn’t go inside the slanted broken doorway but up the sides of the wallboards and up onto the tin roof. Holden had hiked through the woods enough to know bears were more than capable of climbing trees, but could they climb up the side of walls?
It was common for mushers to suffer from sleep deprivation and to experience hallucinations, but Holden had survived Ranger school, one of the toughest combat courses in the world. Even though that had been twenty years ago, and the Iditarod had been grueling, he didn’t think he was seeing things now.
Although rare, it wasn’t unheard of for a hibernating bear to wake up hungry during winter because it hadn’t stored up enough fat in the fall, but what kind of bear could drag a human being up the side of a building? Holden decided he didn’t want to find out. He suddenly became painfully aware that he had left his satellite phone and his own little addition to the expedition, a Taurus Model 44, back on the dogsled.
Damn, rookie mistake. Former Ranger, my butt.
He spun on his heel to trek back to his sled to retrieve both weapon and phone when he heard a woman cry out, “Please help me!” The voice was followed by a desperate shriek that came from inside the hardware store.
Staggering out of the darkness of the slanted doorway was a young woman who couldn’t have been much older than Shannon. Half the woman’s clothes had been torn away, and she was missing one boot. Her hand was outstretched towards him while the other held onto her stomach. Holden had seen enough combat wounds to recognize the squishy blue tentacles leaking out of her abdomen. Something had eviscerated this poor girl and left her to die.
“Oh, thank God, please help me!” she cried, taking two steps towards him.
Every fiber in his being told him to run for the phone and gun, but he also knew he could never leave this young girl behind to die.
Hesitating only seconds, he started towards her. She managed another step before falling to her knees and then collapsing onto her face.
When he reached her, Holden dropped down onto his knees beside her. “Don’t worry. I’ve got you. You’re going to be okay.” It was a lie, but he had to say something.
The young woman lost consciousness. Realizing that time was a luxury he did not have, he quickly began removing the small first aid kit he kept on his belt. But in the few seconds it took him to turn away to unzip the kit, something in the hardware store reached out of the shadows, grabbed the young woman by her ankles, and dragged her back inside with such tremendous force that Holden fell backwards.
“Holy crap!” He hadn’t seen what had snatched the young woman. It had happened in seconds. He contemplated going into the darkened interior after her, but then he heard a loud rumble emanating deep within the chest of something very large and very pissed off.
The girl must’ve woken up because Holden heard a loud scream within. This was cut off almost immediately by a menacing growl and sickening powerful CRUNCH. Experience had taught Holden that the silence that followed such horrific sounds was a sure sign he needed to get the hell out of there.
Holden ran. He passed the Buick with the blinking tail light, skidded around the now smoldering buildings, and bolted for his dog sled.
The dogs were going nuts. They weren’t barking; they were whining. The majority pulled sharply against the snow hook, but some were trying to bite right through the tethers.
Holden was only a few feet from the dog sled when he saw his dropped anchor wiggling loose from the ice. The dogs pulled in unison, and with the next pull they would be free. Not only were the phone and gun in the sled, but he’d be stranded here with whatever had killed the girl and destroyed the town.
Holden increased what little speed he could and dove for the sled. Desperate, he flung himself forward and slid the remainder of the distance across the ice and managed to grab the anchor’s rope. At that exact moment, the dogs pulled the anchor free and bolted for the trail. The rope burned quickly through his hands, and he cried out as the anchor split open his palm.
Gripping his bloody hand, Holden managed to stumble to his feet. He could only watch as his dog team, along with his gun and phone, vanished quickly down the trail.
Something the size of a small car landed in the snow behind him. Holden had never been the type to freeze in combat, but he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to see what had snatched the poor young girl at the hardware store.
He heard a loud crunch of snow underfoot as whatever it was took a step behind him. Instinctively he knew that if he ran, he wouldn’t get more than a few feet.
Summoning his courage, he spun around swiftly.
Holden didn’t see the animal in its entirety. He only glimpsed the clawed hand that struck him so hard that his upper torso snapped around to face the woods behind him, splitting his spinal cord in half in an instant.
Tom Holden’s broken body crumpled to the snow. He felt the cold of ice under his ruined face, and tasted the acrid blood in his mouth.
His last thoughts were of his daughter and how soon he would be seeing her again.