It was so worth it, getting up at the crack of dawn. I'll never understand how so many people are content to sleep through the best joys in life.
Beams of light shone through tendrils of fog wafting across the field. I stopped to admire the view. Pale purples and yellows deepened to rich coral, then a bloody scarlet. Birds trilled and chirped, their voices growing stronger as the sun rose. The cold numbed my face and the hand gripping Sholpan's leash. My breath made little clouds, and I wondered why dog breath didn't make clouds. Especially when they panted so much.
Sholpan rubbed her slender head against my hand. Her fur was short and slick, until my fingers reached her ears where it was long and silky. I patted her side. Her arching back was level with the bottom of my ribcage. She looked at me with big, dark, pleading eyes that said, let me off the leash. I promise I'll stay right here.
"Sorry," I said. "You'd be good until a deer or something runs by. Then you'd be over in the next county and so lost we'd never find you."
She dipped her head sideways and grinned, as if to acknowledge the truth where it was spoken.
"You're a good girl." I ruffled the silky black and white curls along her back. "I'll take you to the dog park this afternoon, and you can run all you want."
Boone scrambled ahead, baying at the squirrels scattering before them. His momentum carried him about ten feet up the tree's narrow trunk before brittle limbs broke under his weight and he slid to the ground. I smiled at my old cur dog.
"Nice try Boone." The dog stared up into the tree, quivering with frustration. His tail went round and round in sweeping arcs. I kept walking, tugging Sholpan's leash as she whined at the squirrels. I wished, not for the first time, that she could be trusted off leash. She was born and bred to run across endless windy steppes though. Russian wolfhounds just weren't safe in a world with cars.
My cur dog grudgingly abandoned the squirrel and followed us as we walked further afield.
Boone's tags jingled. He wore a blaze orange collar and a hunting vest. It was bird season, and I didn't want to risk some city slicker idiot with a trigger finger making pot shots at movement in the grass.
The sun was up over the horizon by now. We moved into the trees, ambling along under the dense canopy of leaves arching overhead.
"All right, we should head home now," I said. Better safe than late for work. Boone dashed in close to boop my hand with a wet nose before bounding out again.
I wasn't planning to go far into the trees to start with. The longer we walked, the more worried I got. We couldn't find the meadow. The trees were changing too; thicker trunks, and taller. Something wasn't right. I sat on a damp stump to think. My stomach growled. Man, I hadn't packed much before leaving or even eaten breakfast. That was dumb. And my boss was going to be pissed. I'd already fed the horses, but his kennels still needed the dog crap shoveled out. My dogs crowded into my face, wiggling and slurping their tongues. I pulled the only two granola bars out of my pack.
"Don't be pushy. Both of you, sit."
Sholpan snapped her share up before I could reach my hand out to offer it. Boone's rear wiggled in the leaves, his tail sweeping the dirt bare where he sat. He opened his mouth to take his piece.
Crap. It is a bear? I slipped a can of mace out of my pocket.
A deafening silence filled the trees.
No birds. This is bad. Cougar maybe? My other hand moved to the cell phone in my pocket. No reception. I pulled my hunting knife out and folded it open, just in case.
A low growl started deep in Boone's throat. Sholpan turned her back to me and stood in a half crouch, daring whatever it was to try and attack with her standing there. I strained my ears for a sound, any sound. Nothing. Probably is a cougar. I looped Sholpan's leash around my wrist and backed up against a tree trunk.
Boone stood and circled the tree, his hackles up and his lip raised to bare long white teeth. Sholpan added her throaty growls to his.
My arms shook. Boone exploded into the trees with a roar. My heart dropped.
"Boone! Come back!"
A knife slammed into the tree trunk next to me. A scrap of paper fluttered on a bit of string tied to the handle. I stared. A knife. My mouth went dry. It wasn't animals out here.
Sholpan and I tore through the forest after Boone. Giddy with adrenalin, she flew to the end of the leash and dragged me through the trees. My legs fought to keep me upright, half running half skidding on the wet leaves.
A huge explosion shook the forest behind us. A sharp pain pierced my leg. It buckled under me. Sholpan ran faster. Stones and branches pounded me. She ran, dragging me faster and faster through the trees. I screamed at her to stop.
She slammed against something. Snarls ripped through the air. A person screamed. I rolled onto my back and blinked the dirt from my eyes.
My dogs were red. And wet. And fighting someone with every fiber their beings.
Sholpan yelped and staggered. Another thrown knife stuck out of her side. I screamed again, pulled myself upright and slid the leash off my useless throbbing arm. My knife was lost, but the can of mace had made it through.
Some freak wearing a gas mask appeared out of nowhere and ran at Sholpan. I pulled the tab on the pepper spray with my teeth. Aimed it at the monster that hurt my dog.
They screamed in agony and pawed at their eyes. My eyes burned from the vapor. Blinking back tears, I crawled forward to where they collapsed on the ground. Take this you bastard. I hooked fingers into the gas mask, struggling keep hold of the can as I pulled it off her face.
Teach you to hurt my dog, freak.
A blade flashed.
Searing pain lit up my shoulder. My ears rang. Boone and Sholpan tore into the horrible woman. She struggled. Lots of red blurred my vision. I struggled to breathe before everything went black.