Excerpt One Text:
Suddenly, inspired by her dream, Gilly said, “What if I don’t use dogs? What if I use a different animal?”
Gil Wells looked at his daughter curiously. Then, putting his paper down, with his glasses at the very end of his nose, he said, “Well, Gilly, there have been a number of attempts to use other animals to pull sleds. Horses, goats, and domesticated caribou, or reindeer, have all been tried without much success.”
Bolo looked up and nodded as if saying, “Yup, yup, very true!”
“What animal do you propose to hitch to your sled?” asked Gil.
“Cats!” she said triumphantly.
“Cats?” he said.
“Cats!” she repeated.
“That,” he mused, “is the most improbable thing I have ever heard of in my life!” And he started to laugh, first in chuckles, then in rolling waves of laughter, tears running down his cheeks.
Gilly’s mom came into the TV room to see what was the matter. She had an “Ok, spill the beans” look on her face. Gil was wiping tears from his cheek. “I’m sorry, honey,” he said to Gilly, “I’m not making fun of you. It’s just the most quizzical thing I have ever imagined.” Then to his wife, “Gilly proposes running the Iditarod with a cat-drawn sled rather than using a traditional team of dogs.”
“Well, I don’t see what is so odd about that, dear,” Kate said to her husband. “She will just need some well-trained and very fit cats. Besides, felines have long been regarded as royalty in some societies, sitting on the throne with emperors, while the dogs groveled for scraps at the foot of the table. The god of wine, Bacchus, had a chariot drawn by a pair of cheetahs. In fact, in the Scandinavian cultures, the goddess Freya was pulled in her chariot by none other than two giant cats named Bygul and Trigul. Did you know that, Gilly? How about you, Mr. Smarty Pants?”
“I did not know that,” admitted Gil. “Gimme some particulars.”
Gilly’s mom walked into the study and looked at a row of books. Shelves of novels and texts extended from the floor to the ceiling; the Wells family liked to read. Kate pulled a book of Scandinavian mythology from the shelf. She scanned the index and flipped the pages. “Here we go!” she said, and laid the book open before them.
The illustration showed the goddess Freya as an imposing figure. She was tall and regal with a long gown that flowed behind her off the back of the chariot. She had torrents of hair and blazing eyes. She stood in the chariot with two oversized, powerful, and sinewy cats harnessed to the front of the chariot.
“There is even a Swedish stamp commemorating her with a cat-drawn chariot,” said Kate. “Look!”
“Wow!” said Gilly, suddenly affirmed and buoyant in her hair-brained scheme. She gave her dad a “don’t mess with me” glare. “Cats are smarter than dogs,” she declared. “They are probably stronger pound for pound and have great endurance!”
A chastened Mr. Wells, the experienced ex-musher and Iditarod finisher, said, “Ok, if you two can spin some scientific formula and transmogrify a team of cats into a formidable team, you have my complete and total blessing! All I know is that I don’t think I’d like to be out on the trail with Lola and Shadow and have Mean Zeke and a howling harness of huskies bearing down on me, that’s all I’m sayin. Maybe check with the zoo to see if they will loan you a few cheetahs, or maybe some lions and tigers,” he added with a wry grin.
Gilly scowled at him and his wife looked exasperated. He threw his hands up in a gesture of defeat. He smiled sheepishly at his daughter and winked at his wife, an act that was not unnoticed by Gilly.
Mr. Wells got up and went into the kitchen to fix the evening dinner. Kate put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “How many cats do you think you will need for this enterprise, honey?”
“About nine,” said Gilly. “A lead cat and four pairs in the traces. Besides, cats have nine lives, so it’s an omen, isn’t it?”
“Perhaps. And will Lola and Shadow be part of the team?”
“Of course. They have already told me, more or less, that they want to go. They are increasing their training by chasing more mice in the barn,” she fibbed. The Wells family had an old barn on the back of their acreage where Gil had previously housed his dog team. Now it served mostly as a toolshed for yard equipment and woodworking.
“They are looking quite fit,” observed her mother. “Hmm,” she thought to herself. “Will wonders never cease?”
“Well,” said Kate, “although dogs have been faithful companions to humans for centuries, there never was a dog who could equal the great cats in size, ferocity, or elegance. I still have days in clinic where I am more terrified of an irascible old tomcat than the orneriest rottweiler,” Kate laughed.
“You know, dear, the old expression ‘tougher than herding cats’ is meant to suggest that cats have a very independent nature. Which isn’t all bad,” she said with a smile as she smoothed Gilly’s hair. “But for that unique individual, be it Freya or Bacchus or a stubborn red-haired girl, gaining the allegiance and command of a team of great cats would be a thing of incredible grace and beauty. It is a worthy dream.”
“Thanks, Mom,” said Gilly.
“For understanding, for not treating me like a little kid . . . and for letting me dream.”
“That’s what moms are for,” Kate said with a smile.
Excerpt Two Text:
The snowy owl hooted and rose from the branch like a white angel against the blackness of the night sky. He whirled into the air and disappeared between the dense trees. There was a fading flutter of wings and the rustle of the wind. Gilly and the cats heard a soft “Whoooooooooo” and, again, “whoooarrrrrreeyooooouuu,” and then there was silence. They were all looking up to where the snowy owl had last faded into the sky.
Then a branch snapped on the ground just beyond the firelight. All eyes were now focused to the ground and the dark periphery beyond the tree trunks. Nothing moved. No one breathed. Was it the bull moose? A bear? The wolves? Horrific visions filled Gilly’s mind. Then there was a flicker of movement in the shadows between the corrugated pine trunks. The outline of a large form became visible. The cats circled around Gilly protectively. Instinctively, she grasped the crocodile’s tooth on its worn leather lanyard that her father had given her for protection. It seemed to be rattling between her fingers.
There was a sudden movement. A scratching sound. A red glint of light, like a ruby, flared in the darkness, a single blood-red eye: a match. Held in a gnarled, brown hand. Two black, creased eyes shone behind the glow of the light. A pipe was being lit. The figure of a man materialized and walked slowly toward them.
He was a big man wrapped in a fur robe. He had long dark hair and a sharp aquiline nose. There were scars on his cheeks. His brow was furrowed. A bead necklace hung about his neck. A small leather pouch hung beneath the necklace.
“What do you want?” Gilly declared. “Who are you?”
“Who am I?” came the reply in a voice soft like the wind. “Who are you?”
“I’m Gilly Wells. And these are my friends, my sled team. Lola, Shadow, Max, Sasha, Ravi, Gar, Che, Jamila, and Simone.” Each nodded gracefully, but kept his or her eyes fixed on the stranger.
“Ah yes! I have heard of you.” He placed his finger against his nose and looked up from his glowing pipe, issuing a thin spiral of smoke into the cool air. They could see that his eyes, although creased with years, were kind and wise. And he smiled, not as an amused adult, but as one views a respected opponent or an admired adversary, a worthy ally or friend.
“All the forest is abuzz with your coming,” said the old man.
“They are? All the forest?”
“They are, from moose to wolverine to owl to robber jay, to raven, eagle, pine marten, snowshoe hare, to caribou, to sheep, and, it seems, to wolf. Only the hibernating brown bear is insensible to your presence in their woods. It is good that the bear, ursus horribilis, is sleeping, as he, or especially she, can sometimes be very cross, very irritable indeed, to the presence of unannounced or unwelcome visitors. Some would say you trespass, but then, you are hardly the yowling noisy claptrap of the sled dog teams that have preceded you. And lead you by a sizeable distance, I might add. Yes, all the denizens of the forest have heard of the young pale girl and her brave, or perhaps foolhardy, feline companions who are chasing the Iditarod mushers into the Alaskan wild.”
Gilly was silent.
“The question,” said the man, “is why?”
“Why?” stammered Gilly.
“Yes. Why do you, a small, young girl creature, who presumably has a warm bed in a home somewhere safe with loving parents, enter a dark and frozen wasteland in a race that has defeated many, broken others, and killed some. It is not a meager thing. And with cats of all things!”
“Well,” she finally sputtered with some indignation, “because I’ve always wanted to run the Iditarod. It’s been my dream. And this was my chance. Our chance. It is our adventure!”
There was a pause, and then the man said, “That is all the reason you need, my young adventurer. ‘Because!’ is good enough. I admire that gumption. You have a pure heart and faithful, brave companions. But you need more than innocence and courage.”
“What more?” Gilly asked.
“Yeah, what more?” murmured the cats.
“You need strength, a protector, or both. It is a basic fact of life.”
“I guess it’s too late for that now, eh?” murmured Gilly.
“Oh no. In fact, this is the perfect time, the purrfect time! You have committed to this adventure. And here I am.”
“And who are you?” asked Ravi.
Excerpt Three Text:
They slept hard that evening. Well after midnight, Gilly felt a slight draft of air, and a breeze ruffled the tent flap. She felt the wind curl beneath her sleeping bag as an arm might encircle your waist and pull you forward. It drew her from the tent. Gar and Jamila both watched her curiously as she stepped outside. Simone sat alertly beside the tent, sniffing the air. “I don’t like it,” she said. “Something feels wrong, but I can’t quite figure out what it is.”
Gilly had walked only a few paces from the tent. Standing at the edge of the clearing, she looked up at the treetops, as if drawn to something ethereal above.
“Don’t wander too far, Gilly!” said Gar.
“Hmmm,” sighed Gilly, still half asleep. “Don’t you hear it?” she asked them. “Someone needs help. Someone is calling, ‘Oh, my feet, my burning feet of fire.’” She took another step and looked up. The wind rushed at them from above, and a swirling shape descended from the treetops toward the girl.
“Mon Dieu,” shouted Simone. “Ze Wendigo! Run, Gilly, run!”
But before the girl could move, a brutish creature with black leathery wings, a curving beak, sharp talons and a serpentine tail swooped down and lifted Gilly into the sky. It was a grotesque beast that appeared part hyena, part pterodactyl, and part snake. Its sunken green eyes had a vertical black crescent iris that gleamed with an evil reptilian intent.
Jamila, Gar, and Simone all leaped into the air to try to intercept the creature, but it was too fast, and they all fell back to the ground with empty claws.
“Awake, awake!” cried Simone. “The Wendigo has Gilly!”
The cats were outside in a second. “What do we do?” they snarled. “What is it? What is a Wendigo?”
“It is a demon of the dark northern wilderness and a cruel, evil spirit. We must follow it as quickly as we can, or risk losing her forever! It may not be able to carry her far before . . . Hurry!”
As Simone spoke, Gilly was aloft at the level of the treetops. She was wide awake now and shouted frantically to her cats by name; they tracked her on the ground by her cries. She grasped the amulet about her neck and whispered, “Ukpik, Boreas, help me!” But this time neither the owl nor the shaman appeared to save her, and there was no more magic dust.
The stench of the creature overwhelmed her with an odor of decay and death. Its skin was leathery and coarse with a bristly plumage. Like a hideously magnified housefly, it had stiff, barbed spines and a grotesquely scaled head. The eyes, pushed back into the sockets, glared at her. Gilly was clenched in its cruel, taloned claw, and she gasped to draw a breath. “I can’t die,” she vowed to herself. “I can’t let it kill me.” She knew this battle was hers alone.