Shadow Spirit had seen Aura Lee and that yapping Little Bear stop at the stream, but her sense of smell told her this man who had Aura Lee so upset hadn’t come this far, in the chase’s excitement she had lost the scent and now needed to backtrack and find it. This person had a foul smell about him, and if she could, she would not let him do any harm to her family.
She stopped to sniff around a large cottonwood tree that set off the trail three or four yards. By all the scents and footprints, this was where the man had slipped off the trail and hid till they had passed. Moving in a circle, it didn’t take long for her to pick up the scent of his trail heading through the woods towards town.
By the time Shadow Spirit reached the edge of town, the sun had already dropped below the horizon and the night sky was coming on fast. The first stars were beginning to twinkle over the Chugach Mountains and later a full moon would be rising, casting its silver glow over the landscape. The smell of fires burning in cook stoves and on open hearths filled the air with the smells of home and family. These smells were pleasant, but confusing, when mixed with the scents of other men and the man she was tracking. It wasn’t long before the trail was indiscernible and Shadow Spirit became confused, not knowing which way the culprit had gone. She decided circling the town was her only option. Trying to pick up the scent amongst all the other smells in town would take too much time and for some unknown reason, she felt time was of the essence.
She had come almost the full circle around town and was approaching the wagon-rutted road that led to the nearby town of Sunrise. Sniffing from one side to the other it wasn’t long before she detected what she was after. It was faint, but she was sure she was back on the right trail . . .
Because of the time she had spent circling the town in search of the trail, the scent was fading fast and it took all her K-9 powers of smell to follow it.
She followed it to within a few hundred yards of the town of Sunrise and then, for whatever reason, she went no further.
This place had an evil smell to it. It wasn’t like Hope, where people knew her by name and patted her head when she walked up to them. She remembered last year when she and Dusty had come to this place. On that day she hadn’t entered the town either. She had watched her master from a vantage point where she couldn’t be seen, but yet was able to keep a protective eye on him. Her master had told her never to enter this place without him because dogs had been known to disappear from there, never to be seen again. Instinct told her the person she had been following was in that town. With that knowledge, she decided to lay in wait to see if he would come out of wherever he had gone.
The full moon was bright, and it made the shadows deep and ominous. All but one of the saloons had closed down hours ago, and Shadow Spirit was about to give up her vigilance and start for home when movement behind that particular saloon caught her attention. She stealthily moved forward from her place of observation and followed the sounds of footsteps on a parallel course. The scent of the human was a familiar one, and it caused a snarl to appear on Shadow Spirit’s lips, exposing her wicked looking canines.
When an involuntary low guttural growl broke the silence of the night, the man froze in his tracks.
“Who goes there?” He asked with a shaky voice as he drew his gun. “Show yer self ‘afore I start blastin’!” Matt Sledge yelled with as much authority as he could muster, trying to hide the fear he felt in his stomach.
Matt was a no account petty thief and back shooter. From the young age of fifteen they had caught him stealing from the widow Prichard, who was trying to do him a good turn by giving him a job. The ranch foreman was the one who caught him red-handed and ran him off. A month later the foreman was found dead alongside a watering hole he’d been cleaning out; he had been shot in the back. Everyone knew who had done the deed, but it couldn’t be proved. From then on Matt road the owl-hoot trail and there wasn’t much he wouldn’t do for money.
When Ace (Blackjack) had run into him in San Francisco and told him some of the plans he was putting together for a big haul. Matt jumped at it when offered a piece of the action . . . That is, until Ace explained to him where this untold wealth was to be found.
Matt was a coward, yellow through and through. He’d never faced a man head- on, and with any luck he never would. The stories that were already coming out of this far-off, gold-rich place called Alaska, gave him cause to pause and rethink his snap decision. Tales of grizzlies of monumental size hiding behind every tree, attacking without provocation, caused a cold chill to rack his body even though it was a warm California day. The stories of the never-ending, long, dark winters also scared him witless. Like most cowards, he was paranoid of the dark, always believing something was lurking in the shadows to do him harm. He had, a few times, used the night to his advantage, but most of the time he preferred to do his dirty deeds in the light of day . . . so he could see to shoot his unsuspecting victim in the back.
Ace needed a man without scruples, such as Matt, even though he knew him to be a greedy little coward. Using Matt’s greed against him as a lever, knowing he would never have to make good his offer, he doubled the stakes. This made the offer more money than Matt had ever seen or hoped to see in his lifetime. His greed for money once again overshadowed his cowardice, so the decision was sealed with a handshake and enough money in his pocket to book passage to Hope, Alaska, on the next steamer heading north.
As Matt peered into the dark, with scary shadows that surrounded him, the thought of riches was the furthest thing from his mind. Being the coward he was, he stood literally shaking in his boots, listening for any sound that might warn him of an impending attack, but the only sound he heard was his own heart beating. Nothing else reached his ears.
There wasn’t any other sound. Even the woods had become deadly quiet, and this implication only added to his horror. He could taste his fear, it was as familiar to him as life itself and at this moment he thought his life might be over.
The natural response to fear is fight or flight. However, in Matt’s case, the thought of fighting never crossed his mind. His only thought now was in what direction to run. Frantically he looked about, but not being able to see or hear what he was sure was there, caused panic to overtake him and he bolted back in the direction he had come. Little did he realize how close he had come to his demise in the form of slashing teeth…?
When the human bolted, Shadow Spirit’s first thought was to attack. She could’ve run this man down in a heartbeat and she knew, by his scent, he was the one who had been sneaking around their cabin; but for whatever reason, she let him escape. The great wolf-dog would remember his scent, and if their paths crossed again, the outcome would a whole different ending.
 During the gold rush, sled dogs were at a premium and often stole and sold on the black market.
To Be Continued…