Authors: Will Hobbs
Tags: #Ages 8 & Up
Y DAD TOOK OFF ON
his bike. Next thing I did was put in a call to Iowa. I knew my mom would be waiting to hear from me, even though she and my little sisters, Jodi and Rae, had only gotten in the night before.
My grandmother didn't hear so well and wasn't easy to talk to, and my grandfather always asked about my asthma, which wasn't exactly fun to talk about. Asthma and allergies were the reasons I didn't go along anymore on the visits to their farm outside of Decorah, where my mom had grown up. My grandparents' musty living room, inhabited by their shaggy dog and two cats, is a total dander factory. Five minutes and I'd have to bail. Outside, the pollen from all their flowers and fields gets me as bad or worse. My eyes burn and my nose runs like
a fire hose. Just thinking about it, I was practically reaching for my inhaler when their answering machine came on.
I breathed easier, knowing I didn't have to talk to anybody. I said “Hi” and “Hope you're having a great time,” “Hi, Gramma,” “Hi, Grampa,” and “Oh, P.S., a meteorite crashed through the roof and I've got it right here in my hand.”
After I hung up, I noticed my message hadn't included anything about the possibility of Quinn coming down to visit. Good thing. My mom has always been a little suspicious of us when we get together. She knows Quinn and I are into
fun. “It's a guy thing, I know,” she says, “but I don't have any sons to spare.” She's not too keen on living dangerously.
My dad's more philosophical about it. Once, he told me that he and Uncle Jake used to explore abandoned gold mines around Lead when they were teenagers. It was incredibly dangerous, he said, and incredibly stupid. It was only by dumb luck they hadn't gotten killed. Here's how he summed it up: “I'm telling you this so you won't repeat my mistakes. Adolescence shouldn't be a fatal condition, son, just a bumpy ride you can get off of when it eventually slows down. So promise me you won't do anything that stupid.”
At that moment, I couldn't think of anything more stupid than exploring abandoned gold mines. “Sure, Dad,” I promised.
I went outside with my meteorite and my sneakers,
onto the front porch and down the steps into the sunshine. I was going to shoot some hoops to kill time. I set the space rock down among the granite river rocks that outline my mom's flower beds, then sat on the porch steps and pulled on my sneakers. As I was tying my shoes, I felt something I'd never felt before, a slight vibration running through me like a mild electric shock. It was so subtle I could barely feel it, but it was there. It ran from my scalp to the tips of my toes.
The phone rang. I ran for it, sure it would be Quinn.
It was my mom checking in from Iowa. We talked about the meteorite at first. As soon as she figured out that Dad was on a bike ride and I hadn't gone with him, she asked, all concerned, “Did you have an asthma episode?”
I didn't know why she even asked. At home, they're rare. We don't have dogs or cats. Pine pollen gives me a little trouble in June, but this was August. And she knew how touchy I was when anybody suggested I was anything but normal and couldn't do stuff on account of my asthma.
“No way,” I said.
I could hear her wheels turning. She knew how into my bike I was, and riding with my dad on Sundays. Something had to be going on.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
That's when I had to cough it up. I told her I was waiting for Quinn to arrive. “It's not a sure thing,” I said, “just an outside possibility.”
“Hmmm. If Quinn does come, and you two are hanging outâ¦I'll be gone two weeks, and your dad will be at workâ¦Just rememberâ¦”
“Remember what, Mom?”
“You know, take care of yourself. Cool it on the extreme stuff, okay?”
“And wear my helmet. No problem, Mom.”
“Did Attila come across the bridge yesterday?”
The bridge my mom was talking about was the footbridge over Spring Creek. The forest service built it a long time ago. It's part of the hiking trail up the creek on the narrow strip of Black Hills National Forest that separates our place from the Carvers'.
Attila was the Carvers' Turkish war dog.
“Haven't seen hide nor hair of him,” I reported.
“This isn't a good development, Attila coming across the bridge and onto our place.”
“I'll tell him to beat it if he comes around.”
“From a safe distance, I hope.”
We signed off. Attila was on a strange tear, all right. There was no telling what had gotten into his head. He'd been stealing the river rocks from the border of my mom's flower beds. It was crazy. They had to weigh four or five pounds, and they were more than a mouthful, even for a Goliath of a dog like him. Three times, my mother had seen him steal one.
We were hoping Attila would just quit. Dealing with the Carvers was tricky, and we didn't like to rattle their
cage. They were extremely territorial, and they outnumbered us forty acres to two. Their forty was fenced with barbed wire, and Attila patrolled the perimeter a couple of times a day. He'd never come through the fence until recently, when he started marauding for rocks.
I was curious what he wanted them for, but not curious enough to follow him home and find out. Attila was okay if you came onto the place with one of the Carver boys, but approach the fence without an escort and he would go ballistic.
The Carvers had three kids, all boys. Cal, the oldest, would be starting senior year in a few weeks. He'd gotten his driver's license back at the beginning of the summer after spending most of his junior year on probation, ineligible for football. What a catastrophe that had been, for the whole town. Cal had made all-state his sophomore year and was Hill City's hope for a championship.
Buzz and Max were identical twins. They were going to be freshmen in a few weeks, same as me. We'd been classmates since forever. It must've been third grade when they announced at school that they'd just gotten a Turkish war dog puppy. My dad looked up Turkish war dogs on his computer to see what we were up against. “Turkish war dog” turned out to be another name for the Anatolian shepherd. They're sheepdogs from Turkey.
It's a shame Attila didn't have a flock of sheep to protect. Even his spiked collar was just for show. At school, I'd asked Buzz what the collar was all about. He said it gave an advantage fighting wolves to the death. The wolf
can't grab hold of the dog's throat.
As everybody knows, there aren't any wolves in the Black Hills, not to mention grizzly bears or even black bears. There used to be, but they were all killed out.
I'd asked Buzz why they were called “war dogs.” Back in Turkey, he explained, they were used in combat for centuries. “It would have been cool,” Max chimed in, “if they'd been in the Black Hills during the time of the pioneers. They coulda used 'em against the Sioux.”
The Carver boys came up with this kind of stuff just to get my goat. Even though they never said so, it stuck in their craw that my dad worked at Crazy Horse. The whole Carver family was against the mountain statue of the Sioux chief, and everybody knew it.
Unfortunately, I had a thing about
dad, too, not that I ever made a peep about it. But I was around the twins a lot, and they could sense the fear.
I couldn't help it. Their dad was the coroner of Custer County, and ever since the day at school when some kids told me about him doing autopsies, what that meant, I haven't been able to keep certain images out of my head. In fact, my worst nightmare has to do with me and the Carvers' father, and you can guess what he's doing to me. I've never been able to shake it. Carver, what a perfectly nice name, but attach it to somebody who dissects people for a living, and it makes pictures in your mind. Or is it just me?
Quinn says I think too much. He's right about that. Let's leave it at this: the Carver twins and I had a very
complicated relationship. If I make it sound like we were enemies, that's overdoing it. Over the years, I've messed around with them a lot, especially when Quinn's around. We weren't enemies and we weren't friends. Right below the surface there was always tension, and it went both ways.
Enough of that. I sailed out the front door intending to shoot some hoops, and there was Attila, on the driveway, with my meteorite in his jaws.
TTILA'S BEADY BROWN EYES
stared at me without a trace of fear as his tail curled menacingly up and over his back. The war dog was as big as a Great Pyrenees but more slender and sculpted, all muscle, with a shorter, rougher coat. His muzzle, eyebrows, and ears were black. The rest of him was the color of dusty dirt.
“Take any other rock you want, Attila.” I was trying my best to sound friendly and calm. “Just not that one.”
A growl rumbled from under that spiked collar. Attila was only twenty feet away from where I stood on the porch. He seemed to be waiting to see what I would do.
How was I going to get him to drop my meteorite? Maybe throw something, startle him?
My eyes went to the hummingbird feeder, barely out
of reach. Unhook it, heave it at him?
Another growl. The beast could see exactly what I was thinking.
It was Attila who made the next move. Tail still curled over his back, he turned and ambled for home with my treasure in his mouth.
All I could do was follow. He was headed straight for the footbridge over the creek. Somehow I had to stop him before he got across.
I broke into a run. So did he.
I couldn't let him out of my sight. He might drop the meteorite where I'd never find it again.
In a flash, the thief was on the bridge. “Drop it!” I yelled, rattling the boards as I chased after him. “Drop it, Attila!”
The war dog ran up the far bank and into the woods, then paused for a glance back.
I stopped dead in my tracks. If I didn't chase, maybe he wouldn't run.
He turned and bolted.
Attila was nearing the fence. In a few seconds he was going to be behind the barbed wire and on his home ground, which he was trained to protect.
I tried yelling at the top of my lungs. It didn't faze him. Agile as a deer, powerful as a grizzly, Attila bounded over the barbed wire. He trotted a ways, stopped, then turned around and waited. It looked like he was waiting to see if I was demented enough to follow.
Every hundred feet or so along their fence, the
Carvers had their property posted. The sign in front of me announced,
VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED
The last word had been crossed out, with the word
hand-printed underneath. That would be Max, I thought.
I hesitated, my chest heaving with adrenaline and with something else. Here it was again, that strange head-to-toe electric current I'd felt earlier. I didn't know what was going on, but I couldn't worry about it now.
I'd never gone through their fence before. When you went to the Carvers', you approached up their driveway. You rang their doorbell.
If I ran back to the house, I could call them up or I could jump on my bike and go over there fast as I could. Probably they'd be home, at least Cal would. All summer there'd been banging and clanking coming from their place, which I figured was Cal working on one of his muscle cars. The oldest brother was quite the mechanic and welder.
Forget about calling or ringing the doorbell, I told myself. Either way, I'd lose track of Attila. Not only that, the Carvers would get curious about the rock. If they hadn't seen the fireball last night, they would've heard about it by now.
I didn't have any choice. I had to stay with Attila and keep my eye on the prize.
I bellied under the fence. As I got to my feet on the other side, Attila was still standing there in the trees, no more than forty feet away, the space traveler in his drooling jaws. He tensed. He growled.
“C'mon, Attila,” I crooned. “You know who I am. You wouldn't hurt me, would you? That's my rock you've got, and you were out of bounds when you took it. Be a nice war dog and drop it, okay?”
My adversary wagged his tail, very slightly.
Was he trying to draw me in a little closer before he tore me to shreds, or was he actually feeling playful?
There was no telling.
Attila turned and trotted for home.
I hesitated, then gave chase through the pines. After a minute I glimpsed the big meadow ahead, the huge clearing behind the Carvers' log house. Attila was nearly there. No doubt he would sprint for home once he was out of the trees.
He didn't. At the edge of the grass, the war dog turned around and waited for me to catch up. What now? I wondered, heaving for breath.
Attila did exactly what I'd been hoping for all along. He dropped the meteorite. He dropped it and sat behind it, even wagged his tail.
He wanted to play. Wanted me to come and get it. “Good boy,” I said. “That's right, we've been buddies for years.”
Soon as I tried to take a step closer, that growl started up again.
Drawn to something beyond, my eyes left the dog. From where I was standing, just inside the trees, I couldn't see the Carvers' house but I could see to the far end of the meadow.
There was some kind of giant metal contraption down there, so huge it couldn't possibly be real.
What in the world?
I had to blink and look again.
Unbelievable! All that clanking and banging I'd been hearingâ¦The Carver boys had been building a catapult all summer, a war machine from the Dark Ages like the scale model Buzz and Max had made in school, only this one was actual size!
When the time was right I would tell them I'd discovered their colossal secret and ask for a demonstration. My eyes went back to the rock thief. I edged closer. “C'mon, Attila.”
Another growl was what I was expecting. Instead, Attila backed away from the meteorite and sat down again, about five feet back.
Come and get it, he seemed to be saying. Make my day.
That buzzing, I was feeling it again. Everything tingling and electrical. It seemed to add to my hyper-alertness. I felt so focused I could've counted every hair in Attila's dark muzzle.
I stepped closer, feeling the pine needles under my feet. Attila rose to all fours, tensed like a trap about to spring, and started barking.
Barking his head off.
I froze in my tracks.
From where I stood, the meteorite was a whole lot closer to the war dog than to me. For all the barking, he wasn't taking his eye off me, wasn't about to be surprised.
I better figure this out pretty quick, I thought. The Carvers were going to come running, and there was no way they were going to let me go home with my meteorite, even if I told them how it had come down on our place, into my bedroom. I could hear one of their favorite expressions right now: “Possession is nine tenths of the law.”
The barking kept up, and over it I heard shouts. Max and Buzz were on their way. I could see them running full bore, yelling something I couldn't make out. They might be entering high school, but they were as fast and aggressive as NFL linebackers, and nearly as big. With me back in the trees, the twins couldn't tell who it was, but they knew they had a trespasser dead to rights.
I don't know what got into me. No matter how many pieces they had to carry me to the hospital in, I wasn't giving up what was mine.
I flew at that rock like a guided missile. Just coiled and flew. As lightning-fast as the dog was, it should have been impossible, but somehow I pounced faster and beat him to it. I pulled the traveler into my body, curled into a ball, and hung on for dear life, that snapping and snarling war dog all over me.