Max opened his eyes to a blaze of harsh daylight.
He lay in the bottom of a small boat, the sun's heat warming his golden fur. The little vessel rocked back and forth on the river's current. It was that sound—the sweet soft splashing of the river water against the sides of the boat—that had appeared in his dream.
Water. Max licked his lips. His tongue and nose were achingly dry. Groaning, he got to his feet and crawled to the rear of the boat, then leaned over the edge and lapped up some of the cold, clear river water. The water tasted a little strange compared with what was usually in his bowl or human toilets, but it wasn't bad, just different.
Once he'd slaked his thirst, he sat back on the wooden floor of the boat and glanced up at the wide blue dome of the sky. There was just the one sun, not the three blazing rings he'd seen while he'd slept.
What a strange dream. It wasn't the first he'd had since he and his friends escaped the city controlled by the evil Doberman who called himself the Chairman. The Chairman had led a cabal of vicious dogs called the Corporation, and when Max and his friends had refused to fall in line, the Chairman had tried to lock them up. They'd escaped their cage—helping other dogs flee in the process—but the Chairman and his snarling henchmen hadn't been about to let them get away without a chase. Max and his friends won freedom only when the vicious wolf Dolph showed up and challenged the Chairman to a fight.
Max didn't like reliving those memories, but he never regretted seeing Madame like he remembered her before this began. Even seeing her in a dream was better than never seeing her again at all. The last time he'd been with her in real life, he'd cradled her while she took her last breaths and passed away.
In his dreams, Madame guided Max and gave him advice. Only he didn't know what to make of her words—what did the people's disappearance have to do with the design on Madame's collar?
A honking snore startled Max from his thoughts. He peered beneath one of the two benches in the boat, where Rocky and Gizmo lay curled up in the shadows. It was the little Dachshund who had snored, of course. How the fuzzy Yorkie beside him could sleep through it, Max could never guess.
Rocky's pack leader was a vet's daughter, and he had helped Max escape from a kennel after all the people disappeared. Together the two fought off a pack of starving wolves, and they'd been traveling companions ever since.
Rocky's stubby black legs kicked. "Come back here, kibble," he muttered in his sleep. "I'm-a-getchoo. I'm gonna eat you up! Stop running." With another honking snore, Rocky smacked his lips and fell still once more.
Max's stomach gurgled. He and Gizmo always made fun of Rocky's love of any and every kind of food, but right then, Max could really have gone for a big bag of beefy bits.
They had been on their boat for three days now, letting the current carry them down the wide river toward the faraway ocean. That was where Madame had said the people had gone. People like Max's family, who had disappeared along with all the other humans when they'd abandoned the cities and left their pets behind.
Why had everyone gone away? Max still didn't know. Madame had said something about a sickness, but she wasn't quite herself at the end, and Max wasn't entirely clear what she'd meant. All Max knew was that he needed to find his pack leaders, Charlie and Emma, and their parents. They must be so worried about him. They would never have left him behind if they'd had a choice.
It had been in the frantic rush to escape the Chairman, Dolph, and their packs that Max, Rocky, and Gizmo had found the boat in which they now rode. They'd been in such a hurry to get away from the angry animals and find the humans that they hadn't given much thought to what they were going to eat on the river.
They'd relied mostly on drinking river water to fill their bellies. One time, Gizmo had seen a bright silver fish and dove over the edge of the boat to catch it ... but that had just resulted in her spending the night shivering and soaking wet without any fish to show for her swim.
"They're so fast!" she'd said once she'd clambered back into the boat and shaken herself.
"You'll catch the next one we see," Rocky had said. "I just know it."
She was lucky they'd been in a calm patch of water at the time. Max had seen wolves get swept away in the river's powerful current, and he didn't want that happening to Gizmo.
Max knew that if they didn't stop soon to find food, they wouldn't be able to reach the ocean.
He watched the land flow past on either side of the river. Sometimes they saw houses set along the grassy edges of the riverbanks, and sometimes they drifted through small, eerily silent cities. When that happened, the shore would get built up and cemented over and the water would get dirtier until, passing beneath bridge after bridge, they'd reach the city's edge and the buildings would fall away again.
More often than not, though, there was nothing to see: The riverbanks were lined with dark woods thick with shadows, forests filled with creatures. With the humans gone, the wild animals had grown bolder and bolder, leaving the safety of the forests and openly scavenging for food in the cities. Max caught sight of loping deer and darting rabbits and raccoons feasting in garbage cans, nothing dangerous. The only animals he never saw—or heard—were birds. He didn't know where they'd gone. He guessed they'd all flown far away.
But whenever Max thought he should leap into the water and strike out for shore, he would hear a distant howl or catch a whiff of wolf musk on the wind. It wasn't long before he saw gray or white or brown fur slipping between tree trunks, running parallel to shore, almost as if following the boat.
Max didn't know if the wolves were part of Dolph's pack, but it didn't matter. The last thing he wanted was to make enemies of another group of wolves. And so they stayed in the safety of their boat and drifted on.
A fuzzy tan head popped up beside Max. "See anything interesting?" Gizmo asked.
Tail wagging, Max looked down at his little friend, who was blinking sleep out of her eyes. He and Rocky had met her at a small camp of dogs called the Enclave. It was run by one of the craziest canines Max had ever met, a control freak Poodle named Pinky who insisted he be called Dandyclaw. Despite all that Max and Rocky had suffered through at the Enclave, at least they got Gizmo out of it. The Yorkshire Terrier was small, but she was a smart and fiercely brave companion. She was so endearingly chipper that Max was grateful just to have her around to cheer him up.
"Nothing, really," Max said. "Mostly just trees again."
Putting her paws on the edge of the boat, Gizmo raised herself to get a look. "Trees aren't boring! Especially when they've got squirrels in them."
"Well, just don't go and try chasing any! The river is huge, so it would be a long swim."
Gizmo shivered. "Don't worry, I learned my lesson when I went fishing." She lowered her bushy brows. "I still bet I could have caught that fish if the water wasn't moving so fast. It was just floating there!"
Rocky snored again, then flipped over, his body slamming heavily against the wood bottom of the boat. His front paws swatted at the air. "Kibble?" he muttered.
"Kibble," Gizmo repeated, dropping her paws down again and lying on her belly.
"We need to get ourselves to land," Max said. "Then we can find a human store and drag some food back to our boat."
"Oh!" Gizmo said, her tongue lolling out in eagerness. "That's the best idea. I've been aching to get on dry land again. I feel like I haven't had a good run in forever."
Max's own legs felt cramped, especially because he was pretty big by dog standards and the boat wasn't exactly roomy. The idea of racing through grass—for fun, not because he was being chased—sounded like heaven.
"I'm going to start paddling us toward shore," Max said. Holding up a front paw, he spread his toes apart. "See how my feet are kind of webbed? Labradors like me are good at swimming through water."
Gizmo studied her own paw. "Mine are just normal, but my legs are too short to reach the water anyway."
"Don't worry, you can still help." Max gestured toward the bench at the front of the boat. "You take lookout and let me know what you see." Another loud snore rattled out from under the bench. Max chuckled. "I think we can let Rocky keep sleeping. I wouldn't want to tear him away from his dreams. That's the only kibble he's likely to see for a while."
Max spent the rest of the day clinging to the back of the boat with his front legs while his hind legs were submerged in the river. His back paws dragged through the water as he fought against the current to paddle them to shore.
As he paddled, Gizmo talked about anything and everything she saw. "That's the tallest tree I've ever seen! Oh, I think I just saw a squirrel! Ooh, two squirrels! They look like they're fighting over a nut. They should really learn to share."
"Yeah," Max gasped as he struggled against the river waves. "They probably should."
Gizmo darted to the back of the boat and panted happily as she stood snout-to-snout with Max.
"You're doing really good, Max," she said. "You know, this reminds me of the time I was sleeping in a cardboard box under a bridge. It was raining and cold, and all I had to eat was some old bread crusts that I was saving. Well, this other dog showed up, sopping wet and growling, and he demanded my food."
"What did you do?" Max asked.
"He looked so miserable that I offered to share, but he wanted all of it. Just like those squirrels. I tried to be nice, but he just wasn't listening."
His legs aching, Max stopped paddling. The boat slowed, but still drifted toward shore.
"Did you get into a fight?" Max asked.
Gizmo shook her head. "Nah. A duck floated by on a little stream, and while we were distracted, it waddled into the box, took a bill full of bread, and waddled right back out!" She laughed, then stopped suddenly. Her eyes fell. "Oh, we haven't seen any ducks in a long time, have we? Usually they only go away when it's cold."
Max shivered as icy water splashed onto his back. His legs had grown numb to the chill, but it was still a shock to the rest of him.
"I've been wondering the same thing," Max said softly. "Hey, maybe we'll see some soon, though. Why don't you go check if there are any in the sky up ahead?"
"Okay!" Gizmo said.
She spun around and bounded to the bench at the front of the boat. It wasn't long before she was talking up a storm again. Before finding her way to the Enclave, where she'd met Max and Rocky, the little terrier had been traveling the countryside on her own. She had a lot of tales to tell.
Despite the chatter and the splashes of waves, Rocky kept sleeping.
His strength regained, Max paddled with his hind legs. Slowly but surely, he angled the boat toward shore. Luckily, the flow of the water seemed to help guide them.
Aside from Gizmo's endless chatter, the water lapping against the boat's hull, and the whoosh of the wind, it was utterly quiet on the river. Just like everywhere they'd been since the humans disappeared weeks and weeks back. Max was almost afraid of what they'd find when they finally reached dry land again. More empty, desolate towns filled with sad, starving dogs? More angry bands of canines trying to rule the streets? Wolves or other wild animals with a taste for house pets?
Or something worse?
But the growling in his stomach told Max he couldn't worry. They had to get food. Whatever they'd face on land, they would face it together.
Max wasn't sure how long he'd been paddling, but it felt like ages and his hindquarters burned from the effort. He couldn't see much aside from the dirty floor of the little boat, but he could tell that daylight was fading. Night was on its way.
"Max, I see something!" Gizmo cried out.
"Let me guess," Max said, his tongue lolling out as he panted for breath. "You saw another possum."
"No, silly—something else!"
Max stopped paddling, letting his legs rest, and looked ahead. The little terrier jumped from foot to foot, her stubby tail an excited blur.
"What is it?" he asked.
"It looks like some sort of giant house. It's so pretty!"
Max scrabbled with his hind paws until he managed to heave himself back on board. Water dripped from his fur and made puddles as Max padded to the front of the boat to get a look for himself.
The sun was starting to set, casting a gold sheen across the lapping river waves. His tail wagged as he saw how close they were to the craggy, rocky shore. Insects buzzed over the water, darting shadows in the fading light.
But that wasn't what had Gizmo excited. Farther down the shore was what looked like a fancy white house built atop a platform. Pillars supported wide porches that surrounded each of the building's three levels. Sparkling lights were strung between the pillars, reminding Max of the lights his family put up around the farm during the cold winter months.
Black steam pipes rose from the front of the building, and flags at each corner fluttered in the river breeze. At the back of the strange structure were four giant waterwheels painted red with gold trim.
Dark sludge and debris clung to the slats of the waterwheels—trash that had piled up in the river.
Only then did Max realize this wasn't some fancy riverside mansion after all. It was a boat, and the "porches" were actually decks.
"That's not a house," Max said. "That's a boat!"
"Well, it looks like a floating palace!" Gizmo said. "Have you ever seen anything like it?"
"Never," Max said with a shake of his head.
"Do you think there might be food there?" Gizmo asked.
"I don't know, but it's the first real ship we've seen on the river," Max said. "There has to be something on it. We can check it out. Even if there's nothing to eat on board, maybe it's near a town where we can find food."
"Yay! Okay!" Gizmo jumped down from her bench and nuzzled Rocky, who still lay curled beneath it. "Hey, wake up!"
Rocky snorted, then snapped wide awake. "It's a kibble stampede! Watch out!" he cried.
"It's even better than that!" Gizmo said. "Max and I found a big floating house on the water."
Blinking his watery eyes, Rocky looked from Gizmo to Max. "Wait, what? A house? We can't eat a house!"
"No, but we can eat what's inside," Gizmo said.
"You mean food? Did you find food?"
"We hope so," Max said. "Come see."
Rocky went wide-eyed as he climbed atop the bench and got a look. "Oh, it's a riverboat!" he said. "My first pack leader used to put me in her purse and take me to boats like this to play card games. There's always lots of loud noises and flashing lights." Rocky scrunched his nose at the memory. "But there was also people coming around giving drinks and plates of food to the people while they played their games. I bet there's tons of food on board!"
The three dogs barked excitedly to one another as the current carried their small vessel toward the line of mounded-up debris behind the riverboat. But as they drew closer, Max fell silent and the wagging of his tail slowed.
The riverboat sat in the shallows at an odd angle, tilted over, half onshore and half in the water. There was no dock, just a sandbar, as if the enormous vessel had crashed there.
On the side nearest to them, Max could make out a dark, jagged hole just above the waterline. He couldn't be sure if it was just the fading light reflecting off the water into the interior, but he could swear he saw shadows moving inside.
After all they'd been through, Max felt wary. Someone or something might have already claimed this ship. Before Max could say anything to his companions, their little boat knocked against the slimy, wood-clogged debris trail that led to the riverboat's paddle wheels.
The riverboat loomed over them, throwing an inky shadow across the water.
Shivering, Rocky looked to Max. "This riverboat doesn't seem near as lively as the one I remember, big guy," he said. "I got a bad feeling."
Excerpted from The Last Dogs: Dark Waters by Christopher Holt, Allen Douglas. Copyright © 2013 Christopher Holt Allen Douglas. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
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