The onset of evening cast long, dark fingers across the landscape as Dillon and his team reached Big River, the halfway point between Nikolai and McGrath. The trail took an abrupt drop and turned west, headed toward the Kuskokwim River. For the past three hours, they'd been cutting cross-country along a series of frozen lakes and swamps interspersed with wooded stretches in a blur of sameness. Travel on the river was hard and fast, the temperature dropping. Dillon decided to give his dogs a few more miles to shed the day's heat before stopping to put coats on them. He couldn't be more pleased with their performance so far: healthy appetites, good skin elasticity, positive attitudes. Their five-hour stay in Nikolai did them good. And the mound of spaghetti the locals served him at the school cafeteria had been worthy of seconds. Sure beat reconstituted stroganoff with mystery meat from a foil packet. He wondered how far back Claire was and hoped she didn't miss out on the feast.
The trail climbed the bank and headed into the woods again. "Easy," he said. "Let's not get wrapped around a tree."
Half a second before Bonnie and Maverick ran out of sight around a bend, he saw their ears shoot forward and felt a burst of speed from the team. "Easy. What is it?"
The sled cleared the corner and he saw a thousand pounds of moose in the middle of the trail, head down and swinging side to side, ready to charge.
Dillon stood on the brake. "Whoa!"
But there wasn't time. The team's momentum tangled Bonnie and Maverick under the moose's belly before churning to a stop. Dillon stomped the hook as Maverick bit at the moose's leg and it kicked out. Bonnie caught the blow. Her high yelp cut the air and she went down. The rest of the dogs barked and howled to get a piece of the action. Dillon threw his gloves aside, bellowed "Get out of here!" hoping to scare the beast off, knowing there wasn't a chance in hell it would listen to him. He dug in the handlebar bag for the .45 and continued to yell at the moose as it continued to kick his dogs. Time slowed, each pulse throb in his ears a heart-tearing scream.
He aimed and fired.
The pistol bucked, no louder than a cap gun. The smell of cordite mixed with the stench of stale pizza. The bullet impacted. The suspect took a step back, then recoiled and dropped to his knees, grabbed at the glistening wet spot spreading across the front of his dark sweatshirt. Surprised eyes, too young, pleaded for help. Bloody fingers reached out –
A dog cried. Dillon blinked. He saw the moose lumber down the trail and into the woods. The snow at the front of his team bled.
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