A Matter of Stamina

By Robert H. Redding

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    The big husky leaped at Jack Norbon, who tumbled backward in the snow, struggling with the dog. They wrestled in the soft drifts, play-growling at each other.

    Finally Jack shouted, “Enough, Nanook!”

    The dog stopped, panting. His amber eyes glowed with affection for the boy, who scratched Nanook lovingly behind his ears.

    Jack glanced at four other huskies tethered nearby. “A guy never had better friends than you,” he told them.

    The dogs yelped and leaped when he spoke, but all the while they eyed a large pan of food he had brought.

    Jack visited each animal, dishing out gobs of cornmeal and dried fish cooked together.

    “You might not have won any ribbons at the Alaska State Fair last week,” the boy said fondly, “but you aren’t built for speed, just good old-fashioned hard work.”

    The dogs were huge Mackenzie River huskies—broad of shoulder with deep chests and wide feet. Strong muscles rippled under their think fur, and Nanook, the smallest, weighed ninety pounds. Jack had purchased them from a trapper when they were pups.

    When he had finished ladling each animal its share, Jack gave them a final pat and returned to the house. He was hungry himself, for he had worked hard all day helping the family to get ready to leave for town so Jack could attend a regular school. Until now, he had taken lessons by correspondence. “Lessons by mail are fine,” his mother had said, “but a thirteen-year-old boy needs friends.”

    Jack admitted it would be a nice change. He did get lonely sometimes, even with the dogs. Town was twenty miles from the small mine that his father owned, and Jack rarely saw anybody his own age.

    As Jack entered the living room, his father looked up from a book he was reading. “I’m proud of the way you helped today,” he said. Then he cleared his throat, hemmed a minute, and added, “I’m afraid you’re going to have to sell your dogs, Jack.”

    The boy stared at his father, scarcely understanding. “Sell them? But why, Dad? I don’t understand.”

    “We can’t have dogs in town, son. Out here where they earn their keep it’s different. But we just can’t afford to have them lying around in town.”

    “But, Dad, they’re my best friends. I can’t sell them!” exclaimed Jack.

    Dad’s voice was firm. “If the mine had paid better this year, we could have kept them. As it is …” Then in a reasoning voice he added, “Jack, they eat like horses. You know that.”

    The boy groaned. He knew his dad was right. “If only they had won some prize money at the races last week,” he agonized.

    “It would have helped,” agreed his father. He put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “I know what they mean to you, and I’m really sorry.”

    “It’s all right, Dad.” Jack sighed. “If the dogs can’t pay their way, I shouldn’t expect anybody else to do it. But I wonder where I can sell them.”

    “Ron Snite at the Weasel Mine has offered $500 for them.”

    Jack drew back. “Old Snite! Dad, he beats his dogs. I’ve seen him do it.”

    “We’ll make him agree not to.”

    “I don’t think he’d live up to the agreement. He thinks all dogs are brutes and that’s the way he treats them.” Jack was growing desperate. “Can I try to find another buyer first?”

    His father nodded. “Of course. You have a week before we’ll be moving.”

    When Jack sat down to eat supper, he found that his appetite had vanished. The thought of Snite getting his beautiful team made him feel sick. There just has to be another buyer somewhere! he thought.

    The next few days were hectic for Jack. Helping with the packing and trying to interest people in the Mackenzies forced him to keep long hours. He traveled all over the territory, trying to find a place for his team, but the answers were pretty much the same, “Sorry, Jack, just haven’t got any place to keep those giants.”

    For the first time, the boy was sorry the dogs weren’t racers. “Then you’d be smaller, and not so much of a problem,” he said to Nanook. “People don’t want to fuss with big dogs.” Even when Jack pointed out that Nanook was one of the best leaders in the country, the answer was always, “No, thanks.”

    One day Snite himself paid Jack a visit. His little beady eyes glittered evilly. “Your dad promised me those dogs,” he growled. “I hear you’ve been trying to sell them elsewhere.”

    “They’re mine till they’re paid for,” replied Jack evenly. “Until then I can sell them to anybody I choose.”

    Snite grinned, revealing yellow, snaggly teeth. “I’ll get them,” he vowed. “Nobody but me can feed those monsters.”

    Yeah, thought Jack glumly, the reason you can feed them is that you won’t feed them enough. And his heart ached when he thought of what could happen to them.

    The day after Snite’s visit, Dad went to town to look after their new house, leaving Jack and his mother alone.

    His plan was to return the following day, but that night a terrible storm raged across the land. The snow whipped into great drifts and the wind lashed and howled until daylight. The storm left telephone lines strewn through the trees, and the town road had practically disappeared.

    “Dad will be lucky if he gets back in a week,” said Jack at breakfast.

    “I suppose that makes you happy,” his mother replied with a knowing smile.

    “I just hate to sell the dogs to Snite, Mom.”

    “I know, son, but you can save the money for college. Years from now, the dogs will be helping you like the good friends they are.”

    Jack admitted that that was true, but somehow the thought didn’t cheer him much. The money wouldn’t make up for the damage to the team if they were sold to Snite.

    That evening Jack went to feed the dogs. Because darkness comes early in the Alaskan winter, he stumbled through the drifts to visit each animal. He had just reached behind Nanook’s ears for a goodnight scratch when he heard a scream from the house. It was his mother’s voice.

    Floundering across the yard, the boy crashed through the door. His mother was lying on the floor, pale and in much pain.

    “It’s my leg,” she gasped. “I was cleaning the shelves above the sink and slipped off the chair.”

    The leg was bruised and swollen, and there was a peculiar bump halfway up the shin. “I think it’s broken,” she said weakly.

    Jack knew he shouldn’t try to move his mother if her leg were broken, so he put a pillow under her head and covered her with a blanket. Meanwhile, his mind was racing frantically. What shall I do? The telephone lines are down, so I can’t call town for a doctor. And the mine vehicles could never get through the drifts.

    Whenever his mother moved, she moaned, and Jack knew he was going to have to do something quickly. “I’ll go to town and bring back a doctor!” he declared.

    “It’s dark and twenty miles to town,” protested his mother. “I’m afraid you couldn’t make it.”

    “Nanook can find his way blindfolded,” Jack assured her. “And something has to be done now, Mom.”

    Jack swiftly hitched up the dogs, then checked back in the house to make sure the stoves were stocked with fuel. He covered his mother with more blankets and answered her anxious eyes with a grin. “Don’t worry, Mom. Those dogs and I can go anywhere in the world.” Then he kissed her and dashed to his waiting team. “Mush!” he cried, and the dogs leaped at their harnesses. Though it was pitch black, the team swung out unerringly onto the drifted highway.

    “Haw!” yelled Jack, and Nanook, who was in lead position, turned left toward town.

    Through the inky darkness they sped, the sled bursting through three-foot drifts in billowing sprays. Over hills and down long valleys the dogs and boy swept. Sometimes Jack rode on the rear runners, but most of the time he ran behind with his hands on the handlebars. It was so dark, he couldn’t see the shoulders of the road, but Nanook held a true course.

    An hour passed, but the team’s strength didn’t flag. If anything, their speed increased as they warmed to the job. The night was cold, but Jack was soaked with perspiration as they pushed forward at a mile-eating pace.

    Racing dogs might be faster, he thought, but they’d have lost this race. This is a trail that only dogs with stamina can handle.

    At one place on top of a huge drift the sled tipped over. Jack tumbled in an avalanche of snow, and the sled landed on top of him. He felt a sharp stab of pain, but quick testing proved he’d only pulled a muscle.

    On through the night they lunged, and the boy and his team reached town in just over two hours. Jack ran to the nearest store and called his father at their new home.

    “I’ll get Doc Nelson,” his dad answered after Jack explained the problem. “He has a motorized snow car that will go anywhere. You come on to the house.”

    But by the time Jack reached their new house, his father had already gone. The boy unhitched the dogs, scrounged some food and water for them, and then bedded them down. “You’re winners,” he said proudly. Then he put his arms around Nanook’s neck and added, “I’m sure going to miss you, my friend.” The husky lavished warm licks on him.

    Late that night when Jack’s father returned, he looked tired, but happy. “Mom’s going to be all right,” he said. “Thanks to you, she’s in the hospital resting.”

    “No, Dad,” Jack shook his head. “It’s thanks to the dogs.”

    Dad considered a moment, then he went to his desk and wrote a note. He gave it to Jack to read—“Mr. Snite, sorry, but we plan to keep the dogs. Ten thousand dollars couldn’t buy them now. John Norbon.”

    “You were right, Jack,” said the boy’s father. “You could never sell such good friends.”

    Illustrated by Dick Brown