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The yard was a disaster area.
Earlier in the week Rye had gone around and stapled paper plates to wooden stakes, each one labeled with the name of an Iditarod drop site. At each marker were two heaps of goods for each of the two mushers entered in the race. Eventually these piles would be consolidated into two or three large bags apiece to be shipped to the various checkpoints along the Iditarod trail, a delivery of doggie groceries made available as Lainey and Scotch took the arduous trek to Nome. Until that time, however, they remained semi-contained mounds of sealed plastic bags.
Lainey was taking her turn at the meat saw in the dog kitchen. She wore heavy work gloves and goggles, the sound of the table saw buzzing loud across the kennel. In her hands was a haunch of frozen horse meat which she diligently sliced down to manageable chunks. The goal was to keep the meat unthawed but in small enough pieces to easily boil up for dog stew. Her arms trembled unpleasantly with the vibrations, but she kept working.
She tossed the meat into a nearby bucket that Howry occasionally swapped out with an empty one. His job was to weigh the meat on a scale and hand it off to Miguel when it reached the one pound mark. From there, the dog handler transferred it into heavy grade plastic bags. He used a machine to remove the air and heat seal the bag, passing the finished product to Scotch.
Scotch, working from a clipboard of notes, took the package and deposited it at one of the thirty-six growing piles. She prowled the yard constantly, checking and rechecking the eighteen drop points, muttering under her breath and adding notes to the margins of her checklist.
Lainey finished the meat and stepped back, rolling her shoulders and shaking out her arms. She was glad she had had the summer to get into shape; she could well imagine the pain she would be in had she just arrived to enter the race.
"Want me to take a turn?" Howry asked.
She considered her soreness. "No, I'm still good. Besides, it's Scotch's turn next." With a resigned exhalation, Lainey reached for another chunk of meat, not letting her mind settle on the animal it had come from. When she had seen the donation request form in June, she had almost thought it a joke. Horse meat? The four hundred pounds delivered last month that she slogged through now showed her the error.
Time passed as she fell into the routine. Running meat through the saw, brushing away meat dust to keep it from clogging the machine, dropping chunks into a bucket, turning away for more, and starting again. She saw movement from the corner of her eyes - Howry replacing her bucket with an empty one, Miguel sealing bags, and Scotch taking the bags into the yard. Her world was motion and sound, the buzz of the saw blocking out all other considerations.
A pat on her back broke her reverie. Looking up in surprise, she noticed Miguel and Howry halfway across the yard. Lainey turned off the saw and looked at Scotch standing beside her.
"Come on, it's lunch time." She squeezed Lainey's shoulder.
Lainey groaned as the touch massaged tender muscles. Scotch stepped behind her and began kneading Lainey's tense shoulders, and she sighed in pleasure. "That feels wonderful."
"I believe it," Scotch chuckled. "When we get back out here, we'll rotate. I need to change the blade, anyway."
"Okay." Scotch pulled away and Lainey stretched. She glanced at the horse meat, amazed at how much she had gotten accomplished. "Wow. Time flies when you're having fun."
"You must be a cheap date if this is fun." Scotch laughed and ducked the swat Lainey aimed at her. "Let's go. I'm starved."
"You are so going to pay for that remark," Lainey promised as they walked to the main cabin.
Scotch gave her a sultry smile. "Good."
Lainey felt a surge of lust and wished for the millionth time that Scotch was less responsible and level-headed. She would give anything to be able to drag the woman back to their cabin and quench her lecherous thirst. They had a training run scheduled at midnight, however, and she knew she would never make it through the night without a decent nap. There was still too much to do, too much riding on the dogs and training and preparation.
"You'll pay for that, too."
Scotch grinned and climbed the steps to the deck.
Shaking her head mournfully, Lainey followed, not quite succeeding in quelling the lewd thoughts inspired by an eye level view of Scotch's rear. They entered the mud room, an enclosed entry crowded with coats, boots, brooms and shovels. It was not much warmer here, but they quickly shed their outer wear, using a broom to knock excess snow from their boots before tugging them off, too. Lainey finished first and stepped into the kitchen.
The warm blast of air burned her cheeks, and she shivered in pleasure. Smells of apple tarts warred with meat loaf and fried potatoes. The counter was buried under an avalanche of food, far more than what was needed for their afternoon meal. Past the counter was the dining room, most denizens of the kennel already sat around the large table. A rumble in her stomach urged Lainey forward, and she sat down to lunch, Scotch beside her.
Two seats were empty. Rye was on a long distance run in preparation for his first adult race. The Yukon 300 was open to seventeen year olds, and he was eager to get out on the trail and prove himself. He planned to enter the Iditarod next year.
"Where's Thom?" Howry asked as he buttered a roll.
Helen dished gravy over mashed potatoes for Bon. "In town. Scotch wanted some more batteries for the head lights. He's going to pick up the pizza, too."
"Pizza!" Bon yelled, getting a laugh in response.
"Not for you, little man," Scotch said, waving a fork at him. "It's for the race."
Miguel reached over and tousled Bon's blond hair. "That's right. The Iditarod."
"Well, I think you two can miss one pizza . . ." Helen drawled.
"How are things going in here?" Scotch asked.
"Not bad," Irish said. "But if I see another dog booty after March, I'm going to throw it into the fire."
Scotch grinned. "You say that every year."
Her sister glared at her. "I can't wait until I'm old enough to saw meat with you instead. Then Bon can get sick of booties."
Lainey held up her hands, still feeling a phantom vibration in them. "You'll change your mind after a couple of hours at it."
"Will not." Helen raised an eyebrow at her daughter and Irish blushed. "Sorry."
"No problem," Lainey said, smiling. Irish had taken to treating her and Howry as extended members of the family. It was kind of nice in an offhand way. Lainey had not been involved in a homelife like this since she was a teenager. She had always wondered what it would be like to have siblings, and the last few months had been a real eye opener.
As she ate, she glanced over at the living room. It, too, looked like a dump. Here the eighteen checkpoints were indicated by colorful paper taped to the walls. At each place were piles of dog booties, dog blankets, socks, gloves, and all other manner of tools and comforts from home that Lainey and Scotch would need to survive the race.
She nodded at the mess. "You guys do this every year?" she asked, dismay coloring her voice. "It's a lot of work for only a couple of weeks of racing."
"This year it's twice the work," Scotch said.
Helen tsked. "Don't listen to her," she told Lainey. "You're actually forcing us to practice what we'll be doing next year anyway. I seriously doubt we'd be able to talk Rye out of running. He's already drumming up sponsors for his rookie year."
"I don't think you'll cooking so much meatloaf next year," Scotch said, referring to her brother's distaste for the meal.
"No, but if he can figure out how to pack my turkey vegetable stew, he'll be in heaven."
"Freeze it in an ice tray," Lainey suggested, reaching for a second helping.
"There's an idea. Stewsicles." Scotch winked at Irish's laughter.
The dogs began barking a rowdy greeting to an oncoming vehicle.
"Pizza," Howry reminded the toddler.
"Pizza!" Bon agreed, waving his hands in the air.
Lainey scowled at her colleague. "You know that's my dinner you're talking about, the one I'm going to be missing a month from now because you're eating it today."
Howry snickered. "You can afford to skip a meal or two. Less weight for the dogs to haul."
Before she could respond to his joke, Helen gave Howry a stern look. With amazement, Lainey watched him redden just as Irish had moments before.
"Sorry," he said, eyes twinkling.
Thom stomped into the kitchen from the back deck, carrying a paper sack. "Here's your batteries," he said to Scotch as he came into the dining room. He paused to kiss his wife in greeting before handing the bag to his daughter. "Got a couple of bags of Jolly Ranchers and chocolate kisses, too."
"What about the pizza?" Irish asked.
Thom shrugged and sat down. "It's in the truck. Figured you wouldn't need it yet. Mom's got to get all this stuff packed and ready to go first." He gestured toward the food laden counter and began dishing up his lunch.
"First one there gets his choice of pizza," Howry said.
They stared at one another for a split second before exploding from the table. When the dust settled and the yells fell away in the distance, Thom looked at his wife and son, the only ones remaining in the room. "Pass the potatoes, please?"
"Eighth place!" Scotch yelled as she rushed forward.
Lainey leapt into her friend's arms, and they spun around in the middle of the street under the indulgent eyes of the racing committee.
"You beat Rye in!" Scotch continued. "He's about thirty minutes behind you."
"I know! I passed him at the last checkpoint. Tundra's got a strained ankle. He had to pull her off the line."
Scotch winced in sympathy as she released Lainey. "Did you eat snow this time?"
Standing on her own, Lainey gave her another hug. "Nope. Stayed upright the entire way."
"Very good." She turned to the team of dogs. "Let's get these guys bedded down. We're staying about a mile from here at the Baker's place."
"Are you hitchhiking?" Lainey asked.
Scotch grinned. "Depends. You going to offer me candy if I get in your sled?"
Lainey's smile was devious. "Oh, I'll offer a lot more than candy, sweetheart."
"Hell, what are we waiting for?" Scotch jumped into the bed of the sled. "Mush on, oh Iditarod qualifier."
Lainey laughed and waved at the handlers holding her dogs. "Ready? Let's go!" Tails wagging, the team trotted down the street.
"You're doing damned good, Lainey," Scotch said over her shoulder. "The dogs look like they could go for another couple of days."
"Not all of them," Lainey said. "Apollo's heading for home now. Strained his shoulder by the first checkpoint and I had to drop him."
"He probably took a turn wrong. The rest of them seem ready for bear, though."
"I hope so. These runs are too short. Just about the time I get into the swing of things, the race is over and it's time to stand down." On Scotch's direction, she ordered the team onto a side road. "On by," she called as a pick up truck came toward them. She did not relax until the vehicle was past - Chibee, a two year old team dog full of fun, had a tendency to pull away from the team in a puppyish effort to chase things. Fortunately, the three hundred miles he had already run seemed to have mellowed his playful nature and the truck went by without incident.
"That won't be a problem next month," Scotch said. "You've been sticking to the six hour rule?"
"Yeah. Six on, six off. It wasn't easy when people were passing me, though."
Scotch laughed at her disgruntled response. "Remember the rookie meeting. Just because they're passing doesn't mean you won't be gaining on them four days down the line. If a musher wears out his dogs too early, it's a blessing for you."
"I know." Lainey sniffed. "I still don't like it. And neither does my team."
"Good. Got to keep the competitive juices flowing. Sometimes it's the only thing keeping you slogging down the trail."
She finally drove her team into a large yard with a cabin. She followed Scotch's directions and brought the dogs around to the back. A small barn sat there and she halted the team in front of it. Within the hour they had all the dogs fed and bedded down on straw inside. Only then did Lainey begin to feel the exhaustion sweep over her.
Scotch's arm around her waist held her up as they trudged toward the cabin. "Margaret's fixed a turkey dinner for you. We'll get you fed, watered, showered, and bedded down in no time."
Lainey mumbled a response, simply pleased to be where she was right this minute.
Lainey stared at the mound of gear on the hotel bed. "Do you always get this much stuff at the musher meeting?" she asked as Scotch dumped a matching pile on her bed. Irish, who shared the room with them, happily began sorting through her sister's items.
"Oh, yeah. Every year we get something from the sponsors. It's best not to count on it, though." She pulled out a pair of leather work gloves marked with the name of a business and tried them on.
Sitting down, Lainey started rooting through the goods. She also had work gloves, as well as a two pound sample bag of dry dog food, heavy duty mittens from a sporting goods store, nearly one hundred dog booties in bright neon orange, a travel toothbrush courtesy of a local dentist, two medium sized dog harnesses, and a handy little tool kit in a plastic pouch. Everything was prominently marked with the appropriate logos.
"Can I have this?" Irish asked her sister, holding up the tool kit.
"Sure. You can have the mittens, too, if you want them."
Pleased, the girl pulled out the mittens and tried them on.
Lainey set the dog food, booties, and work gloves with her gear, sweeping the rest back into the bag she had used to transport them from the musher's meeting. "I wasn't expecting the turnout," she said, laying back on the bed, hands behind her head.
Scotch examined one of the booties with a critical eye. "It's easier for folks to get to the start than the finish. At least they know when the race starts. Depending on weather and dogs, the ending can happen anywhere from eight to twelve days from now. No one can guarantee being there for the winner." She collected the booties and put them in a travel bag. "If you don't want all of that, you can leave it in the lobby for someone else to pick up. A lot of mushers can't afford much - keeping the dogs fed and happy takes a lot of money. An extra set of booties or gloves can come in handy."
Still lying on the bed, Lainey nodded, her mind on the information packed meeting in which they had spent the day. The trail conditions had been the most informative, the race manager warning that temperatures had warmed areas of the interior, causing overflows at rivers and creeks. The rest of the time had been spent with the other mushers signing commemorative items, turning in the last of their paperwork, and hearing speeches from the executive director, three sponsors, and several race officials.
A knock interrupted her musings, and Irish hastened to answer the door.
"Come on. We're heading over to Sullivan Arena," Rye said, sticking his head in the door. Behind him stood Miguel and Howry.
"Don't want to miss that!" Scotch grabbed her parka.
Lainey grinned and got up. Time for dinner, more speeches, and the drawing of numbers to see in what order mushers would be starting.
Once the latest Iditarod enthusiast had left, Lainey leaned across the table and lowered her voice. "They must be hard up for material if they're asking me for autographs."
Thom laughed. "Who knows? You might be Rookie of the Year this race. That alone will make your autograph worth something."
"Yeah, and maybe I'll win the race, too," Lainey said, chuckling at the unlikeliness of such an occurrence.
"Lainey?" someone asked behind her.
She rolled her eyes at the Fullers before putting on a pleasant face and turning to the new arrival. Her expression faltered and she gaped at the man standing there. "Ben?"
Benjamin Strauss, Cognizance editor, smiled, his teeth white against the tan of his skin. "Is this seat taken?"
Howry came around to shake Strauss' hand and make introductions to the rest of the people at their table. Lainey remained flabbergasted at her friend's sudden appearance. She vaguely heard Thom insist that he join them for dinner, and then he was sitting beside her.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded, finally reaching over to give him a pleased hug.
"Since we've been covering the bills and training articles, of course we'd be here to cover the race itself. The magazine also bid on the Idita-Rider auction," he said, referring to the extra weight needed to slow the excited dogs down at the start of the race. He ordered coffee from a passing waiter, and smiled at her. "Guess who's riding in your sled on Friday?"
"You?" She laughed at his nod. "I hope you didn't have to pay too much!"
Strauss busied himself with adjusting his silverware, an air of self-satisfaction about him. "You'd be surprised. It's no secret that the impressive Scotch Fuller has been training you. We actually had a bit of competition to win the bid."
"Really?" Rye asked. "How much did it go for?"
"Wow. That's not bad at all," Scotch said.
"Thanks to you," Strauss said, raising his cup in salute.
Lainey grinned as Scotch blushed, and patted her thigh under the table. Dinner was served not long after the new arrival. Most of the race followers settled at their own tables to eat, leaving the mushers in peace. Conversation was stimulating, especially when the Fullers discovered that Strauss also had field experience under his belt. The tales grew taller as the three journalists attempted to outdo each other for the most exotic locations and bizarre situations in their careers.
As dessert was served, the chief executive officer approached the stage. He got to the podium and cleared his throat over the microphone. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, it's about that time." He waggled an elaborate cowboy boot.
The audience cheered and clapped, and Lainey felt her heart beat hard in her chest. There were a lot of people attending this event, and she had never spoken to more than thirty or forty at a time. She nervously glanced around at the other tables as a name was called out. How many people were here, anyway?
The names were called in order of sign up. As each musher picked a number from the hat, indicating his or her starting position, he or she took the opportunity to thank sponsors and family. Some had a long list and the time dragged on, time in which Lainey became more and more panicked.
Lainey smothered her anxiety by loudly applauding as Scotch stood. She envied the quiet confidence the woman had as she wove her way through the tables toward the stage, pausing to shake hands with friends and fans on the way.
At the podium, Scotch grinned and waved, receiving another round. She reached into the hat and pulled out a number, giving it to the race official.
"Number forty-eight, Scotch Fuller!"
A collection of groans joined with the clapping and whistling. There were seventy-six mushers this year. Scotch would start right in the middle of the pack.
Scotch stood at the podium, waiting for the applause to die down. When it had, she said, "Looks like I'll have to work extra hard to catch up this year."
Lainey laughed with everyone else, enjoying the friendly tone, forgetting her concerns as Scotch continued speaking.
"I'd like to take the opportunity to thank my parents, Thom and Helen Fuller. Without them I wouldn't be here, let alone be racing dogs. They put together our kennel and taught me everything I know about dogs and sledding. I want to also thank Rye and Irish, my brother and sister, for all the work they've done to keep the kennel running.
"My thanks to Cognizance magazine for being my main sponsor this year. By extension, that thanks also goes to Don Howry, Lainey Hughes and Ben Strauss, all sitting at that table over there." She pointed, smiling at them. "Don's the reporter writing articles about me for the magazine. Lainey's our rookie entry and trainee, and Mr. Strauss is the one who helped it all happen."
Lainey smiled back at her as she continued her list of sponsors. All the individuals who had purchased booties or 'adopted' dogs over the internet, the school kids who put on bake sales and fund raisers to help with costs, and the various local businesses who had funneled money into the kennel in support of Scotch were mentioned.
"And finally, thanks to all of you. You're a great bunch of people and I'm glad you're here."
The crowd broke into applause and cheers again as Scotch left the stage. The racing committee executive returned to the microphone.
She felt the blood drain from her face, having forgotten that she was next in line. Around the table everyone was clapping and laughing, urging her forward. Lainey could not hear their words through the roaring in her ears. Howry stood and took her hand, pulling her to her feet and pushing her in the general direction of the stage.
Lainey stumbled only once before gaining a modicum of control over her rebellious limbs. Halfway to her destination, Scotch intercepted her. Their hands met, and Lainey felt a measure of strength flow through the touch. Pale blue eyes twinkled in amusement and understanding. She leaned close, her voice loud to be heard over the applause. "You've faced down a rampaging moose."
Jerking her head back, Lainey unconsciously straightened. She most certainly had. A slow grin crossed her face and she squeezed Scotch's hand. "Thanks."
Scotch gave a little bow and released her.
Shoulders squared, Lainey continued to the stage. She was no less scared of her predicament, but it did not hold the same level of power over her. The mad desire for a shot of whiskey had abated. Climbing the steps, she reminded herself that in two days, she would be far away from this madness, heading into the quiet Alaskan wilderness with her team.
The boot of numbers was offered to her and she reached inside, swirling the contents around before taking a slip of paper.
"Number four, Lainey Hughes!"
Four? Four? She stared out over the celebrating audience, unable to clearly see her table through the glare of the lights. She was going to be leading the rookies out of the gate.
The audience thought she was preparing to speak as she stood at the podium, hands on each side. They quieted, and her heart thumped in her throat again. Moose. Rampaging moose. When she spoke, she was pleased her voice did not tremble as much as the rest of her was.
"I think that everyone at Fuller Kennels deserves the biggest thanks - Thom and Helen Fuller; Rye, Irish and Bon; and Miguel Sanchez, their handler. But mostly Scotch Fuller for taking on someone from Outside with absolutely no knowledge of racing to train for the Iditarod. All of them showed a lot of professionalism and patience in dealing with not only a rookie racer, but a greenhorn to boot."
She blushed at the laughter and fumbled for the index card in her pocket she had prepared the night before. "Um, I'd also like to thank Cognizance magazine, my primary sponsor and employer. By extension, thanks go to Don Howry, my partner in crime, and Benjamin Strauss, editor and close friend. The first one traveled to the wilds of Alaska for a story. The second bought my pitch and sent me out here even though he thought I was crazy." Lainey went down her list of supporters on the card. Through the kennel website, she had her own fan club of school children and Iditarod aficionados that had brought in money.
When she finished, she gave a brisk nod and stepped away from the podium. The relief flooding through her almost made her stumble at the bottom of the steps. She heard the next racer's name called and breathed a sigh as the clapping and whistling was directed at someone other than her. Several attendees reached out to pat her back or shake her hand as she passed. Finally at the table, she gratefully sank into her chair, surrounded by smiling faces. The musher on the stage began his speech, but no one here paid him any attention.
Scotch took Lainey's hand. "You did great."
"Yeah, you didn't faint," Howry said, raising his glass to toast her fortitude.
Lainey stuck her tongue out at him, receiving a laugh.
"And I still think you're crazy," Strauss said.
She shrugged one shoulder. "You knew that a long time ago." Looking at him, she saw his curious expression and realized Scotch still held her hand in plain view on the table. She raised an apologetic eyebrow, knowing the truth was out. He now had a good idea why she had chosen Scotch for this article.
Lainey supposed she should feel guilty for lying to Strauss all those months ago, but she did not. Shoulds and shouldn'ts were what got her into alcoholism in the first place. He of all people knew that. Instead, she smiled at him, and squeezed Scotch's hand.
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