My apologies for taking so long to update this. Readers from Balto Source will notice several differences, including a new scene. Enjoy. :)
Copper headed off in the direction Dixie had told him, wondering what Steele was up to now. So far the dog had tried not less than four times to destroy his family, going back to before Copper himself had been born. Now it seemed like no one was safe, not even the terror's own daughter. He was still trying to figure out how such an old dog could survive seemingly on hatred alone, when a voice broke his thoughts.
Uh-oh. That could only be one pup and... yes, they were together. The owner of the voice, Toby, was playing with Luna in a storage lot by the harbor. They were using a beam suspended from a crane as a merry-go-round, running it in a circle until the rope was good and twisted before they jumped on and let it spin itself out.
"Hey Dad!" called Luna. "What's up?"
"Nothing," said Copper, not wanting to worry her. "I'm just trying to find your mother, that's all."
Luna jumped off the beam, stumbling a little as she struggled to regain her balance. "I'll help," she offered.
Toby hopped off. "Me too," he volunteered, facing the wrong way. He'd been getting tired of the game anyhow.
Copper's eyes twitched back and forth. "It's a little more complicated than that," he said evasively.
"Like what?" asked Toby, instantly intrigued.
"Well…" said Copper slowly. "She's missing. She was seen this morning heading out of town with another dog."
"Who was it?" asked Luna.
Copper lowered his head, and his voice carried a clear note of hatred. "Steele."
The pups' ears flew up and their eyes flew open. "STEELE?" they asked in unison. "But what's he doing back in town?"
"I don't know, but it can't be good," said Copper. "Listen, I'm going after them. You two behave yourselves, alright?"
Both pups nodded. "Sure Dad," Luna promised with a slight twinkle in her eye.
Despite his concern for his mate, Copper paused. "You know what to do if anything happens while I'm away?"
"Go find Grandpa Balto or one of my aunts or uncles. Or Toby's dad," she added as an afterthought, referring to Rex, the head of Nome's canine police.
"Maybe I should go get him," Toby suggested.
Copper shook his head. "There's no time. This is family business." 'And personal,' he thought to himself as he dashed off on his way.
After a brief pause, Luna turned to Toby. "You want to follow him?"
He grinned back, always eager for an adventure. "Well, he did say there was no time to lose."
They followed Copper's trail, taking care not to give him too much of a head start lest they lose him or too little lest he see them following and tell them to go back.
Meanwhile, Copper was trying to find the trail. 'Steele,' he thought angrily, 'If I get my teeth on you, so help me they'll need a crowbar to pry me off.' His relationship with Steele made most conflicts between in-laws seem like a nice game of rip-the-rag. First there was that little thing about the ousted sled champion trying to murder first one and then both of his parents, of course. More recently, and more personally, was yet another attempt that involved kidnapping Luna. Now Steele had gone so far as to mess with Taya. Copper was not about to let that go.
'Okay, let me see…' Finding nothing on the straightest path out of town from his home, he skimmed along the edge of the settlement looking for any dog tracks leading away. A few turned up coming and going, but these proved to be of no concern. Most were wolves who had ventured into the outskirts of town looking for food.
At last he found a cluster of tracks, definitely canine, leading out of town. The bad news was, they were so jumbled despite leading in one direction that any visual cues were all but erased. Expecting more of the same as he had already seen, he bent his head down to sniff. Strays. He started to turn away, then paused and sniffed again. No, there was a familiar scent amongst them. "Taya," he uttered. He could no more be mistaken about that scent than he could confuse his own nose with that of another dog. A second sniff confirmed his suspicions. Steele was there as well. So what of the strays? He couldn't tell for certain how many dogs had contributed to the track, and for a moment wished he had agreed to get Rex's help. 'No, the longer I take the more danger Taya will be in. As for whatever accomplices that scum has, when I get to them their number will drop to zero one way or the other.'
With firm resolve, he set off again in pursuit.
It took Taya a few moments to figure out what was going on, but when she heard the sound of running paws behind her and turned to look, there were Steele's minions hot on her tail. Panicking, she darted off at top speed. Her muscles started throbbing and her lungs began to ache as she literally raced for her life across the tundra. 'Gotta get out of here,' she thought, but there was no place to go. Then as she cleared a hill she spotted an old building in the distance and raced toward it. It looked familiar, but she had no time to try and remember where she had seen it before. The front door was open, so she dashed in and slammed it shut with her back legs. She heard Steele's goons barking outside, and the door shook a few times as they rammed against it. But the hinges, though old and rusty, held soundly and the strays soon gave up.
She looked around. She was in a room that took up most of the building. At one end, several crates covered by a faded red-checked tablecloth formed a makeshift stage. Everywhere throughout the room there were chairs and crates set up to serve as seats. In the middle there was a sawdust pit surrounded by a tall iron fence. The sawdust had once been stained red, but now it was faded to a dull brown.
Taya's mind flashed back to a time years ago, when the seats had been filled with as many as fifty or sixty people, all yelling like madmen (which most of them were). Many of them waved wads of money or bottles of whiskey in the air. Dogs were fighting in the ring. Strong dogs, weak dogs, big ones and small, biting, slashing and howling loud enough to wake the dead. Taya shivered as she broke out of her trance. No wonder the building was so familiar! It had been her home once! This place… was the place of the Northern Fights.
A sound made her turn her head to an opening door at the back of the room. Out stepped a man in old clothes, mostly mismatched. She had last seen him in a reasonably good suit, but the face was still the same. 'Carson!' she thought, bristling. Nicholas Carson was Taya's former owner, and if there was anyone she hated more than Steele, it was him.
"Taya?" he asked in recognition, laughing. "Well, waddya know? Here I am, getting supplies to go back into business, and along comes my old champion!"
Taya lunged at Carson, rage burning in her eyes. She had no plans of letting him start this place up again, especially with her as the star attraction. Seeing her fury, he slammed the door in her face, momentarily dazing her. She heard him running to another door about ten feet away and was there waiting when he opened it. But as she lunged, she found herself trapped in a bedsheet. She tried desperately to claw her way free, but before she could get loose he had snatched her up, shoved her into a cage, and slammed the door shut. The lock clicked just as Taya threw herself at the door.
"Don't know how you got so cocky, dog, but you'll remember soon enough who's boss around here." He grabbed a rope attached to the cage and started to pull. "Better put you in the kennel with the others."
The kennel, as it turned out, was a storage room full of cages. About half of them held dogs, and none of them looked happy to be there. "Meet your new friends, Taya," he laughed over the barking. "Once I've got a few more, you're all going to fight each other so I can see who's strongest. Then I'll smuggle the five winners down to New York City to be my new champions when I open up for business there. Five champions, five times the money!" He kicked Taya's cage into a corner and walked out, laughing as he slammed the door behind him.
At about that time, Copper reached the point where the tracks diverged. One set went back to Nome, the other three continued on. He studied them, cursing himself now for not bringing experienced help. He was a fighter and a father, not a tracker.
"Okay, think Copper. She's got to be one of the ones that continued; Steele wouldn't let her go back." He sniffed the tracks making a U-turn and growled. "Steele."
His first instinct was to go back, to track Steele down and kill him. He began to turn, but stopped. No, his first priority had to be Taya. With firm resolve, he headed off after the other three tracks. Steele could wait; in the meantime, he'd made a huge mistake leaving his goons to do the dirty work. If Taya was still alive and on her paws, the two of them would be unstoppable. If, on the other hand, they had hurt her in any way, then the gloves were off.
He followed the tracks for several minutes, beginning to run and trot in turns. It was on his third round of trotting that he spotted two forms approaching. As they drew nearer, he realized that neither one was Taya. Growling, he hunkered in a shallow depression in the snow and watched, every part of him laying flat.
The two dogs were both strays if their scraggly looks were any indication. One was brown, the other a splotchy mix of gray hues. They were moving at an unhurried pace.
"Come on, you louses…" he growled to himself. He had already planned his attack. If they stayed on their course, they would pass right by him. A quick ambush and, with some luck and a few old moves he could get at least one of them down, preferably the bigger one, before they knew what hit them.
As they drew still closer he could hear them talking. When their conversation became clear, his eyes widened. Their words changed everything.
"I say we just lay low," the gray dog suggested. "Forget about the pay, and make sure he doesn't find us. No questions asked, no awkward answers."
"I don't like doing jobs without getting paid," answered the brown. "It's tough enough getting food in our bellies without stiffing ourselves."
"Yeah, but we didn't do the job," answered Gray.
"So what?" asked Brown. "She's not getting out of there anytime soon, so we can at least tell the boss we took care of her. If he presses for details, we make something up."
"And what if she does get out of there?" asked Gray.
"She's not going to get ou-a-AAH!" yowled Brown as Copper struck him full in the side like a grizzly. With a ferocity born of having nothing to lose, Copper worried him like a rag and slammed him onto his back. With the blindsided dog pinned in place, he put his paw on the exposed throat and bared his teeth.
Copper felt the old fire racing through his veins, the fury he had not felt since he and his family fought Steele for what should have been the last time. It was just as well that aggressive "negotiation" was all he had time for, because he wasn't in the mood for anything else. "You, gray dog!" he fairly roared. "If you want your friend to live another minute, give me some answers!"
Gray shivered like a leaf, unable to move. Copper had picked wisely; with the more confident of the two at his mercy, the weaker one was more scared than if it were his neck on the line.
"I know you were told to take out a female dog, mostly chow, and kill her. Where is she, and what did you do to her? Don't lie or so help me, they'll need a bloodhound just to find what's left of you two."
Gray bought it hook line and sinker. "She's alive!" he fairly blubbered. "She escaped into some old house and got locked inside, I swear! We roughed her up a bit, but she's fine! We didn't want to-"
"Did I ask what you wanted to do?" Copper demanded in a low, menacing tone. "You were hired by an older dog, black and white. Right?"
Gray nodded. So did Brown, not that Copper cared. He wasn't interested in anything from a dog who had been so ready to lie.
"Well you listen, and listen well. You two steer clear of him and don't breathe a word about our little meeting, or it'll be the last word you breathe. Understood?!"
"Good." Brown was struggling for breath now, so Copper let up the pressure just enough to give him some oxygen. "Now, if I follow your tracks will I find her?"
"Alright. I'd better find her alive and well, because I have more connections than you can imagine in Nome, and if she's hurt I will comb every alley, crawlspace, and drainpipe until I find you two." He got off of Brown with a shove. "Now get out of my sight."
They needed no second bidding. As Copper moved on, a strange feeling came over him with a shudder. He'd thought that the old fighter in him was gone, dead. Yet it had come back so readily. That should have been reassuring, to be able to call on his aggression when his family needed him most, and it would have been except for one thing.
He had wanted them to resist. He wanted an excuse.
Taya clawed and bit at the wire mesh, but she couldn't make any headway. As her anger dissipated, it gave way to despair. 'I'm trapped,' she thought, 'And there's no way out.' Consumed with defeat, she laid her head down and let out a sigh. 'This time there's no Copper to bust me out of here.'
"Hey, you okay?" asked a dog in the cage next to her old enough to be her father.
She scoffed. "Do I look okay?" she asked.
The dog pulled back slightly. "Hey, hey, easy," he said. "I'm just asking. Name's Blaze, by the way."
There was a moment's silence as Blaze studied her, like he were trying to figure out some puzzle. "So how'd you get here?" he asked. "Did he kidnap you too?"
"No," she answered. "My…that is, someone I know chased me here. I ran inside looking for safety…"
"…and found out you were better off outside," he finished. "I know how you feel."
"I doubt it," said Taya. "My family must be going out of their minds worrying about me."
"You feel like you let them down, huh?"
Taya shrugged. "Yeah, I guess so. I should have fought back, not run away. Maybe then I wouldn't be here."
"Maybe, maybe not," he said. "But you're not the only one to feel like you've failed someone because you didn't try hard enough."
Taya wasn't sure why she cared to listen to him at a time like this, but poor comfort was better than none. Besides, she was stuck in that cage one way or the other, and she felt a strange sense of familiarity toward the stranger, as if she knew him once from somewhere. "Have you done it yourself?" she ventured.
"In a way," he said. "I used to have a friend… a lady friend, but not a girlfriend, you know? I really liked her, but she always seemed to already be going out with someone else. Then after the epidemic in 1925, she started going with this guy who anyone could see was a real jerk. I tried to tell her he was bad news, but she said that she thought she could change him. Instead, he changed her. Soon she wouldn't have anything to do with me or any of her other friends." He paused, visibly pained by the memory. "My master moved out of Nome and took me with him. When we came back later, I found her in an alley giving birth to their pups."
Taya winced. "Awkward."
"Worse than awkward. She wouldn't let me near her, wouldn't talk to me at all. Then after she gave birth to the pups she did call, and told me to find help. There was something wrong…" he trailed off.
Taya knew all too well what that kind of pause had to mean. "She didn't make it, did she?"
He shook his head. "No. She died in that alley, and it was weeks before I could forgive myself."
"Forgive yourself?" echoed Taya. "What the heck did you have to feel guilty for?"
He shrugged. "All kinds of things. Not getting help fast enough, or leaving town in the first place. For a while I thought that I should have asked her out long before that, and then she wouldn't have ended up with Steele."
It was all Taya could do not to burst out at the sound of that hated name. "Steele? The same…" she paused, trying to say anything except what was dancing around in the front of her brain, fighting its way toward her mouth. "The same dog who tried to sabotage the sled run?"
He shrugged. "That's him. Or was him; I heard a bunch of dogs ran him out of town and he hasn't been heard from since."
Taya bit her lip. 'I should be so lucky,' she thought. "So what happened then?" she asked.
"Well, I did the only thing I could do to ease my conscience. I found a few dams with litters of their own who were willing to nurse an extra pup or two. Didn't tell them where the pups came from, but I think at least one of them figured it out anyway. I just hope the pups themselves never found out. I'd like to think that they could live normal lives without the burden of knowing what their father did."
It was a long time before she dared to speak. "I hate to break it to you, but at least two of them did. Their foster mom told them."
There was that look on his face again, trying to figure her out. "How do you know?"
She took a deep breath to steady herself. "I'm one of them."
Blaze's eyes widened. "Do you mean you're…"
"SHHHH!" she warned, looking furtively around. Fortunately none of the other dogs seemed to be keyed in on their conversation. "Not so loud!"
"Oh, sorry," said Blaze. Pushing his head up as close to the cage as possible, he whispered, "Do you mean you're Tasha's daughter?"
Taya nodded and lay down on her stomach. "Yeah. Big surprise, huh?"
The old dog shook his head and spoke in a hushed tone. "I'm terribly sorry. If I'd known who you were, I wouldn't have said… well, what I mean is…"
"It's better this way," Taya cut him off. "I wondered about my mother a lot, and for better or worse, now I know."
"Well, I think you should know that she was about the best dog in Nome before Steele came along. She didn't have a home, and her father was a real rat, but she was always willing to help somebody else. Her one shortcoming was that she always wrapped her life around being with boys."
Taya looked at the floor of her cage. "That's helpful," she groused.
Blaze's voice softened. "I'm sorry, Taya. I can't begin to imagine how hard it must have been, growing up without your mother. But I can tell you this: she loved you even before you were born. And if she had survived, you would've had the most loving mother any dog has had since the beginning of time. I know she's proud of you for thinking about your family when you're stuck in here."
"What do you mean, 'she is?'" asked Taya. "She's dead, right?"
"Yes, but you love her even if you never knew her. And no one you love is ever really gone. Your mother, your family, everyone you hold dear is here right now in your heart, where they'll always be."
Now it was her turn to be dubious. "Do you really believe that?"
He chuckled a bit in spite of himself. "Taya, if I didn't believe it I'd go stir crazy."
A banging sound from under the floor drew their attention, and before they could guess what it was a grate in the floor began to rattle. "What the Sam Hill…?" asked Blaze.
Before he could finish, the grate popped open like a Jack-in-the-box. "Taya!" gasped a familiar dog covered in cobwebs.
"Oh, thank goodness. Come on, let's get you out of here." He padded up to her cage and began fiddling with the hinges.
"I take it you two know each other," Blaze observed, looking from Taya to Copper and back again.
"Yeah," Taya replied. "Blaze, meet my mate, Copper. Copper, Blaze."
"You know him?" Copper asked as he got one hinge pin almost halfway out.
Unfortunately they were so preoccupied none of them thought of who else might have been roused by the sound of Copper's entry. "Well well," sneered a voice. "Looks like someone wanted in on the show."
Copper whirled to face the speaker, but only saw stars as an iron bar crashed across the top of his skull like a thunderclap. Then like a night sky being covered by clouds, the stars faded one by one into blackness.
Oh great, what are they going to do now?
Well, that's for me to know and you to find out.