A Dog's Way Home (Excerpt)

Chapter 1: Abby

It was a near-to-perfect fall day. The late October sky was so blue and crisp it made my eyes hurt. And the Virginia hills, all colors with their pretty fall leaves, humped and folded around us like one of Meemaw's patchwork quilts.

Mama squeezed my shoulder. "You couldn't ask for a prettier day for a competition."

I shrugged. "Tam and I ain't here for the scenery, Mama."

Mama frowned down at me. "Aren't, Abby Whistler. Don't talk like a hillbilly."

Tam yipped and pawed at my leg. I bent down and scooped him up in my arms, doing my level best to ignore Mama. Tam and I weren't there for a grammar lesson neither. We were there to win the Southeast Virginia Junior Agility Championship.

Mama reached out and tickled Tam behind his ears. Something I happen to know he does not like but is too polite to say.

Me and Tam watched Megan Smoot finish her run with her dog, Sydney. Sydney dodged left instead of right around the last of the three jumps and missed the final jump altogether.

"Poor Megan," Mama said. "That's going to cost her."

"That Megan has the attention span of a gnat," I said. "It ain't—isn't—Sydney's fault. He was just doing what Megan told him to do."

Megan finished and waved weakly to the audience as she disappeared into the sidelines.

The loudspeaker crackled. "Next up, ladies and gents, we have little Abby Whistler and her Shetland Sheepdog, Tam. They come here all the way from Harmony Gap, North Carolina. Don't let their size and youth fool you. This is the team to beat!"

I set Tam on the grass and pulled down the bill of my lucky cap. "I don't see why everybody has to remark on my being eleven," I grumbled.

Mama laughed. "You and Tam go show them what you got."

Tam and I stepped into the arena. The agility course spread out before us. We had to cover that obstacle course as fast as possible with no mistakes.

Tam sat at my left heel, looking up at me, grinning his sheltie grin. His red and white coat blazed like the dickens in the sun. I smiled down at him. "You ready to go tear it up, little boy?"

I watched for the signal from the judge’s table. I swear, a whole flock of crows rose up from my stomach, just like in our cornfields back home.

The judge blew her whistle.

Tam and I flew onto the course. Tam hurtled through the tire jump, bounded up the steep side of the A-frame, skidding down the other side. He sailed over two jumps, one after the other, like he had angel wings, always watching me from the corner of his eye.

Some handlers yell at their dogs the whole time they run the course. Others have all these fancy hand signals, even whistles, telling their dogs where to go and what to do. But me and Tam didn't need any of that. We had a special understanding. All I had to do was shift a shoulder or nod my head a certain way, and he understood. Tam always understood.

He flew across the catwalk, charged through the tunnel, bursting out the other end with a bark. He slipped in and out of the weave poles easy as water flowing down a stream.

The end of the course was in sight. All we had left was the teeter-totter and two high jumps. I reckon at that point, the crowd was standing and cheering us on, but I didn't hear them. All I knew was me and Tam and the sun shining bright.

We ran to the end of the course and crossed the finish line. Tam leapt into my arms, covering my face with kisses. My heart about burst out of my chest as I looked up at the time clock. We had won.

Mama and I were loading our stuff into the truck when Megan Smoot came sidling over. With one of those big ol' fakey smiles, she said, "Congrats on your first place win, Abby! You and Sam were just super!"

I glanced over at her. The sun glinting off her braces about put my eyes out. "It's Tam, not Sam," I snapped. Which Megan knew seeing as how we had this exact same conversation at each and every competition.

"Oh right," she said. "Well anyway, there's going to be a pizza party at my house next weekend for everyone in the Junior Handlers Club. Even though you're still not a member, we'd love to have you."

I looked away. "Tam and I might be busy that weekend." Doing what, I didn't know. But I'd rather spend a day in the dentist chair than go to her party.

Megan laughed. "No dogs, silly. This is just for us. It'll be fun!"

That sealed the deal. I wasn't going anywhere without Tam.

Megan walked away, swinging her hair this way and that.

"'It'll be fun'," I said in a high, needley voice that to my mind sounded like a bothersome mosquito.

"Well, it might be," Mama said.

I snorted. "I went to her party last year, remember? The last thing I would call it was fun." All the kids in the Junior Handlers Club were from cities and big towns like Asheville, Hendersonville, and Weaverville. They talked to me like I was a stupid little hillbilly kid. Mama didn’t understand what that felt like. She’d grown up in a city.

But Tam understood. Tam always understood.

Mama pushed the hair out of her eyes. "Wouldn’t hurt for you to make some two-footed friends, you know. Everybody needs friends."

"I got Olivia," I said. "The last time I checked, she had two feet."

Mama smiled. "Olivia’s a fine friend, too. But it wouldn’t hurt for you to broaden your horizons a little. Meet some kids outside of Harmony Gap."

I lifted Tam into his crate in the back of the truck. I hated this part, the way he looked at me with those chocolate-brown eyes like I was doing the worst possible thing. But Mama was real particular about her brand new truck. If it had been Daddy’s old van, Tam would sit right up front with us.

I fiddled with the latch on the crate door. It was so old and rusted it didn’t work worth squat.

"Let’s get going, Abby. I want to drive a little ways on the Blue Ridge Parkway before we stop for the night. It’d be nice to see some fall colors. "

I stretched my fingers through the wire of the crate door. I smoothed the white patch on the top of Tam’s head that’s shaped like a star.

Tam licked my fingertips. "Sorry boy," I said. "You know how Mama is." I slipped him a piece of cheese and scratched his small, fine head.

"Come on, Abby," Mama called, leaning out the truck window.

"Okay, okay," I said.

I gave Tam one last scratch behind his ear in that special spot he loves. "Don’t worry, Tam," I said. "In no time we’ll be home and everything will be just fine."

Chapter 2: Tam

The dog waited. He watched the girl walk to the side of the truck and open the car door. Surely she would come back, open the crate, and lift him into her arms. Then, everything would be as it should be.

The truck door slammed. The engine rumbled to life. Tam whined, pawed at the wire door. Where was the girl, his girl, with her smell of grass and soap and sweat and the sound of her heart beating against his ear. Although a mere four feet separated dog and girl, to Tam, it might as well have been four hundred miles.

The crate rocked and jiggled on the flat bed of the truck. Tam sighed and curled up on the old towel covering the bottom of the crate and slept.

Something jolted Tam awake. The truck screamed in alarm. It swerved one way and then the other, throwing dog and crate against the metal sides of the truck. The sick smell of burning rubber filled his nose.

Tam yelped, scrambled to keep his footing. A crash, the sound of tearing, splitting metal, shattering glass. The truck careened through thick green walls of rhododendron and laurel. The sound of the girl’s and the woman’s cries filled him with fear.

Then the dog's world turned upside down. Trees somersaulted overhead, the ground became the sky. Up and up he sailed and tumbled through the air, down a steep embankment, and away from all he knew.

Silence. Stillness.

Something pulled the dog from the dark place. It was her voice, calling him. She was frightened. He must go to her. Now.

Tam stood. Pain seared his shoulder, his hip. His feet tangled in the old towel the girl had placed in the crate. His legs would not hold him.

He whined, listened again for her voice. All he heard were small rustlings in the undergrowth, the snap of a twig. The sharp smell of water rose from below.

Tam shivered. The memory of his girl's cries filled him with panic.

Tam barked, clawed at the side of the crate. He pushed his weight against the wire door. Resting precariously on a rock ledge, it tipped forward. Dog and crate slid down the rock face, splashing into the creek below. The current grabbed them and spun them away from the bank.

Icy water rushed into the vents of the crate. Tam hated water. He did not like to swim. He did not like to get his feet wet. Now the water rose up his legs. Horror bit deep into his soul. Tam cowered in one corner of the crate, then clawed at the door again, tearing his nails and pads.

He pushed against the door. Rust and age had kept the latch from sliding into place. It gave way. He plunged into dark, rushing water. Although the water pushed him away, the tags on his collar caught in the wire door, holding him fast.

Tam pulled hard. He worked his head furiously side to side. Water rushed into his mouth and up his nose. Bracing his front paws against the crate, he dipped his head and pulled back, popping free of the collar and the tags that told everyone who he was and that he belonged to her. The current grabbed him, tumbling him down river, away from the crate and the collar and the memory of the warm, soft bed he shared with his girl.