It's Mara's first dogsled race. Holly hopes Dad will understand if her sister doesn't win.

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"She has a chance to win!"“You afraid?” Holly signed, opening her fists across her chest. Mara shook her head no and signed a large “excited.” The sisters stopped talking then because their hands were busy with sled and dog.

Popo was tugging fiercely against the chain that held him in place by the pickup truck. When Daddy released him, the old dog jumped two feet into the air. Daddy wrestled Popo by the collar and brought him to where the sled was anchored.

Holly took over after Daddy hooked the dog to the gang line. As Mara’s handler, it was Holly’s job to keep Popo from running away with the sled before the race began.

“Can you handle him?” Daddy asked.

“No problem,” said Holly.

“I’ll go down to the finish chute, then.” Daddy turned to Mara and grabbed a fistful of air, making the sign for “win!”

Holly’s heart sank. Daddy always wanted a win––when he raced, when Holly raced, and now for Mara. Just an hour ago, Holly had placed second in the three-dog class for under-twelve-year-olds. Daddy gave advice instead of congratulations. “It was the last turn that slowed you down. Next time, pick the side of your sled up higher and really lean into it.” Holly had crumpled up her red ribbon and stuffed it into her pocket.

Would Daddy feel let down by Mara’s first race, too? At eight, she was the biggest kid in the one-dog class. But Popo, too, was almost eight. That was old for a racing husky. Could he match the times of the younger dogs?

The weather was too warm today, almost thirty-four degrees, making it slippery for dogs and mushers alike. And Holly worried about the noise of the crowd. Mara didn’t hear it, of course, but Popo did. Mara had worked so hard learning to speak commands. Would she yell them loudly enough to keep Popo’s mind on business?

As if guessing Holly’s worries, Mara looked up and grinned confidently. The race official signaled them to approach the chute. Mara would be the next racer to go.

The girls watched the boy ahead of them shoot across the starting line. Almost immediately he was in trouble. Taking the first turn too wide, he slipped from the trail into unpacked snow. He lost his grip on the handlebar, and the dog took off without him.

A look of panic crossed Mara’s face. “Hold sled tight,” Holly signed. Mara nodded, but the smile didn’t return to her face.

Holly signed the official countdown to Mara. Fifteen-second warning, ten-second warning, five, four, three, two, one. Mara gave the gang line a snap, and Popo flew out of the chute. Popo’s back was arched, and his head was down in good pulling position. Holly watched her sister fly down the trail, long brown braids streaming behind. Mara guided the sled gracefully around the first turn. Then Holly began a special race of her own.

She wanted to reach the finish line before Mara did. The race track made a half-mile loop over and behind a hill, doubling back to end a hundred yards to the west of the starting line. Daddy waited there to catch Popo as he came across. Holly needed to be with him in case Mara lost. She had to shield her sister from Daddy’s disappointment.

Holly cut across the parking lot, where hundreds of dogs stuck their heads out of truck carriers and howled. She darted around the spectators with their bright windbreakers and knitted caps. Daddy stood at the finish line with a stopwatch in his hand, clocking against the times of the other mushers.

Mara’s sled came into view around the hill just as Holly reached Daddy. “She has a chance to win!” he shouted.

And then they saw the magpie fly at Popo’s head. Startled by the bird, the dog jumped to the right and slipped off the hard-packed trail into wet slush. Mara was thrown from the sled, but Popo didn’t run off. He waited for Mara to untangle the lines and trot alongside the sled to the finish line.

The wasted time put Mara out of the running for a prize. Her face mirrored Daddy’s disappointment as she anchored the sled’s snow hook. “Lost,” she signed dejectedly, slapping a V shape down on her open palm.

"What's so funny?" asked Dad.Holly came quickly to her sister’s side. “First race lost,” she signed in agreement. “But Popo still here.” Mara giggled. They both remembered one of Daddy’s races, when his lead dog took off through the woods after a squirrel, leaving Daddy stranded three miles from the finish line. Soon the two girls were laughing as their fingers flew.

“What’s so funny?” Daddy asked in annoyance. When they talked fast like this, he couldn’t follow the conversation.

“I’m telling her about Two Spot and the squirrel,” said Holly.

Daddy handed her Popo’s leash. He knelt down in front of Mara and spoke to her with awkward signs. “This one your first race. Long ago, Holly’s first race lost. Today wonderful! Holly second place. Next week race again?”

Holly’s eyes opened wide to see her father’s words. Second place wonderful? She reached into her pocket to feel her red ribbon. Then Daddy was patting her on the shoulder and saying, “Let’s help Mara get Popo some water.”