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Storm Watcher Chapter 1 - Mutant Fur Ball:
Everything changed the day Luke's mom died. No surprise, right? Of course things changed. He'd be stupid to expect anything else. But what surprised him the most was what hadn't changed.
Luke hovered on the edge of the American Kennel Club's tracking event, invisible to all but a few. People and dogs milled about, waiting for their turn to run the
course and follow scent trails laid in a large grassy field. Barks, yips, and growls mixed with the buzz of voices and the louder calls of handlers encouraging their pets
to stay on the trail and earn their tracking certificates.
Luke had been to dozens of these events, and nothing was different about today's show. Actually since school ended five days ago, he should be ecstatic. But the familiar noise of the AKC event drummed in his hollow chest. He wanted to scream at everyone. To tell them to stop and realize a person was missing. A woman who had embarrassed him with her loud cheering, unwanted advice, and sideline coaching as if she knew more than the dog's handlers - she didn't.
Instead, he listened to his older twin brothers act all big and bad - another thing that hadn't changed.
"What's that white speck?" Jacob asked Scott, pointing at a group of handlers and dogs.
"Mutant fur ball come to life. Coughed up by our very own Hounddog. Isn't that right, Hounddog?" Scott leaned over and rubbed the long ears of the bloodhound panting at his feet. "You stay away from that little fur ball, Hounddog. That's no squeaky toy."
Luke sighed. His brothers acted so cool, but their non-stop chatter meant they were nervous. This was the first time their dogs, Hounddog and Moondoggie, would run an official AKC course.
"Hey, isn't that one of those papillons?" Scott asked Luke.
Squinting into the bright sunlight, Luke studied the mutant fur ball in question. Small with white long hair, black ears, and black patches around her eyes, she stood out amid the beefy German shepherds, bloodhounds, and retrievers, who waited for their turn to sniff the trail.
"Yeah," Luke said. "Except it's pronounced pappy-yawn." He didn't add the name meant butterfly in French. It'd result in instant teasing from the twins.
"That's the dog you want for your birthday?" Jacob asked with a laugh. "It'd be either squished or eaten by one of our bloods as soon as you brought it home."
"Papillons are good trackers," Luke said in the dog's defense.
"No way Dad will agree," Scott added. "You'd better stick to a bloodhound."
But the thought of owning a bloodhound failed to excite Luke. They already owned three. And when Luke and Mom had researched the various dog breeds last year, they'd discovered the petite papillon.
The breed had all the qualities of a bloodhound, but in a small powerful package. And the idea of owning one appealed to him. Maybe because a papillon looked like the exact opposite of a bloodhound. Maybe because his brothers had accused him of being a copycat since…forever. Maybe because his Mom had loved the idea.
"This dog is just what you're looking for." Mom had tapped the computer screen with excitement. "Papillons are friendly, intelligent, tough, and have a strong instinct to protect. Just like you."
"Yes, you. Remember when you were four and Alicia Weber was picking on Scott and you jumped between them and chased her off?" Mom laughed.
Luke didn't, but this was one of Mom's favorite stories.
"You were half her size, but, boy, she was scared of you. The papillon might be small, but I'd bet she'd stand up to the bloodhounds."
"It'd be nice to have another female around the house," Mom joked.
Luke spun a pencil around, both thrilled and nervous about the idea. "Dad wouldn't like it."
"Then you'll just have to convince him," Mom had said as if that was the easiest thing in the world to do.
It wasn't. Luke's stomach twisted. Dad wouldn't talk about it even though Luke's thirteenth birthday was only a week away.
Luke scanned the crowd, searching for his dad. Shaking hands, chatting, and smiling, Dad weaved his way through the press of people like a bloodhound on a fresh trail. As the only electrician in town, he knew everyone.
Eventually Dad returned, calling them over. "Boys, pay attention to the Tracking Dog Test, you'll learn a lot on how to handle a dog." Dad turned to Luke. "After the event's over, go and talk to Mr. Johnson. Any of his pups would make a nice addition to our little kennel." Dad's gaze slid back to the crowd, and he hurried off without waiting for a response.
Scott chewed his lip. Jacob knotted Moondoggie's leash in his hands. Luke'd been right. They were scared about running their dogs.
Jacob noticed Luke staring at him. "Whatcha lookin' at, Weather Weenie? Go watch the clouds. I think I saw a little baby thunderstorm heading this way."
"Better go hide, Lukie," Scott said.
Anger boiled inside, but Luke turned away before he said something to start a fight. Bigger, stronger, and smellier, his older brothers always ganged up on him and wrestled him to the ground until he gave in. Not fair.
A gust of wind touched his sweaty brow. Luke glanced up. A few dark clouds stained the sky. Fear churned in his guts.
Calm down. Deep breath. Luke repeated.
Memories from another storm flashed in his mind. His body numbed, and icy steel jaws bit deep into his soul as the image of his mother floated in front of him. Pain, bitter and unrelenting, pulsed in his chest as he thought for the thousandth time: I shouldn't have called. It's all my fault.
With a hard lump in his throat, Luke struggled to keep from curling into a ball. A sympathetic nose pressed against his knee. He glanced down into Moondoggie's warm brown eyes. Bending to give Jacob's hound a hug, Luke didn't care what his brothers thought. Just the feel of a soft chin on his shoulder, and the musky smell of dog helped ease the tightness in his chest.
Scott said, "Look at that mangy lot. Ranger'll be the only dog to get a Tracking Dog title today."
"No kidding. Dad and Ranger are a professional Search and Rescue team." Jacob said loudly. He scanned the crowd as if hoping people around them were close enough to hear his boast.
Luke stood. Here we go again.
Scott joined in. "Yeah, Dad was specifically requested to go to Colorado to find those lost climbers. SAR is one of his jobs, these others are just..."
"Hobbyists," Jacob said, snorting with disdain.
That's it. Sick of their obnoxiousness, Luke walked over to find a good spot to watch the TD event. A dog had to show an impressive amount of skill to earn a TD title. The tracks had been made at least thirty minutes ago. And some were two hours old. Even though the air reeked of fresh cut grass, the dogs smelled human scent on the ground and followed it.
A few dogs lost the scent, and the cheers from the crowd distracted others. When Ranger's turn came, Luke scrunched the bottom of his shirt as his heart raced. He might be tired of bloodhounds, but Luke had grown up with Ranger.
Nose to the ground and ears dragging, Ranger found the first turn. It was to the left so the next turn would be a right. Luke held his breath as Dad encouraged Ranger. And just when he thought Ranger had missed it, the bloodhound made a sharp right.
The half turn would be the hardest. Luke rose onto his tiptoes to see better. Ranger paused.
The dog lifted his head and glanced at the crowd.
Then Ranger resumed snuffling. Breaking into a trot, he jigged to the right and scooped up the glove in his mouth.
Show off. Luke cheered with the rest of the onlookers. Dad beamed.
But it didn't take long for the well wishers to disburse. A growing murmur of excitement and surprise drew them to another trail. In a blur of white, the "mutant fur ball" dog zipped along the track and found the glove without hesitation. Applause exploded.
Even Dad appeared impressed. Luke's hopes rose. If Dad knew that dog was a papillon, maybe he wouldn't be so dead set against Luke getting one for his birthday.
Excitement built when Luke spotted Dad talking to the handler of the white dog after the AKC event. She was as tall as Dad, with gray-streaked black hair braided down her back.
Luke sidled over to his father. His dad nor the woman didn't notice him, but the petite dog danced over, tail wagging. Luke knelt on the ground, letting her sniff his hand.
"Hey, girl," he said as he scratched her head.
Her black ears perked up at the sound of his voice. She had the most unusually shaped ears he'd ever seen. Each side looked like half of a butterfly.
She was the perfect size. Small enough to take anywhere. And she wouldn't hog the bed. After all, Dad had broken his own rule about no dogs in the house, letting Ranger sleep in the empty space next to him on the bed. And the twins had each other. They never needed their dogs for companionship. So Luke was sure he could convince Dad once his new puppy was housebroken.
This dog had the perfect temperament. Happy and curious. She snuffled at his pockets, then put her front paws on his legs, reaching to lick his chin. And she stared at him as if he were the only person in the world.
She was smart, too. Luke pretended to throw a rock, but she didn't fall for that trick. She watched for the rock to leave his hand before racing after it.
Luke grinned at the thought of having a puppy like her waiting for him at home, being excited to see him, and sharing a room with him. Would Dad agree? Luke's enthusiasm died. Probably not.
"She likes you," the woman said.
Luke glanced up into the iron gray eyes of the handler. Dad had disappeared. Figures. Flustered, Luke sat there with his mouth open.
"Are you one of Jim Riley's boys?" she asked.
He nodded, and cleared his throat. "Luke Riley, ma'am."
"Willajean. I hear you're looking for a pup. I have some bloodhounds that'll be ready by the end of July. Interested?"
"No." Surprised by his boldness, Luke couldn't stop the flow of words from his mouth. "I'm actually interested in a papillon."
Willajean cocked her head, sizing Luke up. "I see."
Luke stood and brushed the dirt off his knees. "Are papillons hard to train?"
"Nope. Hardy little dogs, not princesses like some of those other toy breeds. I'm waiting for Sweetie's sister to whelp any day now. That litter'll be ready by the end of August."
Upon hearing her name, the white dog yipped. Willajean picked her up. They looked like opposites. Soft and billowy next to hard and lean.
Dad reappeared. "Luke, great news. Mr. Johnson said you could have your pick of the litter."
Luke stammered and cringed. The broad smile on Dad's face wavered. Willajean, expressionless, turned away. But Luke needed her. If he were to tell Dad what he really wanted, she had to be there so his dad wouldn't ignore him. Plus if she left, he would lose his nerve and wind up with a bloodhound pup.
"Wait, please?" he asked Willajean.
"Dad, you know I love bloodhounds, but I've been thinking we should branch out and try another breed."
"Which breed?" Dad asked in a monotone.
Luke recognized that tone. It meant Dad was mad. Luke gathered his courage. Now or never. "A papillon."
Confusion and surprise warred on Dad's face. "I'm all for considering a different breed, but a papillon is - ah, no offense, Willajean - useless for search and rescue. It's one thing to find a glove in an open field, but she'd never be able to keep up in the thick underbrush of the woods."
"But I'm not doing search and rescue. I thought the puppy would be mine." Luke's voice cracked, and he flushed with embarrassment.
"No, Luke. No papillon. You pick a bloodhound pup. Or no pup."
From STORM WATCHER, Leap Books, October 2013
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