Glancing back over his shoulder across two hundred yards of dry powdery snow, Brian could hardly believe he had lengthened the distance between himself and the nearest challenger.
Tom Stacy was trying hard to repeat his last two wins in the annual cross-country ski race. But Brian was trying just as hard to capture the championship that had eluded him twice before. Realizing there was less than a mile to go, Brian was confident that Tom had little chance of catching up.
Listening to the soft shush, shush of his skis, Brian watched the clouds boiling over the hills and across the valley. The sky seemed to be getting darker and heavier by the minute.
It could be a whopper, he thought. But it’s probably a couple of hours away. Then his thinking drifted to Tom and how disappointed he would be at his failure to make three wins in a row. This was the last year Tom and Brian would be eligible for this particular race. After the ski season they would both be past the age limit. It was Brian’s last and only hope for a win which, he remembered bitterly, he might have had last year except for a stupid mistake.
Coming in ahead of Tom would be final proof of his skill. They were both good skiers. But then, Tom was good at everything he tried—swimming, running, jumping, and all kinds of team sports. Brian, though not inept, had never been outstanding in any of those things. But when he started skiing he discovered he had an unusual talent for it.
Casting another look backwards, he saw the space between himself and Tom hadn’t changed. As he rounded the brow of a hill, Brian noticed a small dark object in the snow ahead but he paid little attention. He kept his even, steady stride, not easing up or increasing his lead. Though it seemed unlikely, with a superhuman burst of speed Tom could overtake him.
Brian couldn’t help watching the dark object in the snow ahead. Then he saw it move and his curiosity was heightened. When he came closer, he found that a dog was struggling to get through the snow, but it was making little headway through the powdery drifts.
Brian tried to offer some encouragement to the dog as he passed by. “Come on, boy. You can make it,” he coaxed.
Hearing Brian’s voice, the animal looked up with a beaten, hopeless expression. The dog whined, a pathetic, pleading sound as forlorn as its expression.
Glancing from the stricken animal to the finish line ahead, Brian convinced himself the dog likely belonged to one of the nearby farms and, in spite of its painfully slow progress, should be able to get home.
He went on a few feet and the dog whined again. When he turned around, Brian was met with an expression even more pathetic than before. “You little mutt,” he said dismally. “Why do you have to keep looking at me that way?”
Sidestepping back, he made a quick decision and weighed his chances of carrying the dog to the finish line before Tom caught up. It might be a tip-to-tip race after all, but Brian still felt capable of winning.
It wasn’t until he knelt down that he discovered the dog was favoring one foot, trying to struggle through the snow on three legs. As Brian took the leg to examine it, the dog yelped with pain.
“Oh, oh, fella,” he said. “You’re in trouble.”
Tom had already cut the distance between them in half. The storm, too, was getting closer and uglier and might easily turn into a blizzard.
Brian picked the dog up in his arms. “Come on,” he said hoarsely. “We’ll win this race together.”
After another two or three hundred yards, however, it was plain they wouldn’t be able to do it. The dog was too heavy. It had already slowed Brian so much he could hear Tom’s skis behind him, sliding over the snow. At this rate he might not even come in second because the next racer wasn’t too far behind Tom.
No more than a minute later, Tom’s skis were even with Brian’s.
“What are you trying to do,” Tom asked, when he saw Brian carrying the dog, “give me a handicap?”
There was no taunt in the way he said it and Brian knew it was an offhand, spur-of-the-moment remark. Then Tom slowed and asked seriously, “What’s the matter with the dog?”
“It’s hurt, Tom,” Brian said. “I’ll bet its leg’s broken.”
Tom came to a complete stop and asked with sincere interest, “Are you sure?”
“I don’t know. He can’t move it at all, and the little fella yelps whenever I touch it.”
Tom shot a look backward at their nearest pursuer, who was gaining rapidly.
“Take off your coat, Brian.”
“Just take if off,” Tom repeated, at the same time unsnapping his own parka. He laid it out on the snow and asked Brian to do the same, then he lapped them across one another. As Brian settled the dog gently on the makeshift sling, Tom carefully wrapped the trembling body. Then he worked the coats around until the snapped sides were underneath, providing a snug, hammocklike cradle.
“Grab the sleeves on your side, Brian.”
Brian picked up two sleeves and Tom held the sleeves on the opposite side. By the time they started again, their closest competitor was a scant hundred yards away.
Matching strides, the boys kept together as they approached the group of people waiting at the finish line, their pursuer still too far behind to catch up with them.
“If you cross that line one inch ahead of me,” Tom teased as they neared the end of the race, “I’ll wring your neck.”
“I won’t,” promised Brian, smiling.
The tips of their skis crossed the finish line so close together that the judges had no choice but to call the race a dead heat.
“I wouldn’t have believed it could happen,” the official said, but the expression on his face showed that he was glad about the way the race turned out. “I guess the only thing we can do,” he added, “is to let you share the trophy. I suggest we flip a coin to see who gets it first.”
“That’s all right with me,” Tom said.
“Okay with me too,” Brian agreed, grinning broadly.
It wasn’t exactly the kind of win either of them would have preferred, but Brian couldn’t help feeling a warm satisfaction as he and Tom watched one of the cars drive away to take the dog to a veterinarian.