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Lainey grumbled as someone nudged her sled. She dragged herself to consciousness, peering into the dark.
Scotch grinned down at her.
Still groggy, Lainey returned the smile and forced herself to sit up. After a wide yawn, she looked around the cordoned off musher area. "What time is it? When did you get in?"
"I got here about six fifteen. It's almost ten o'clock now." Scotch squatted in the snow beside her. "I saw your time in when I got here. You're due to leave in an hour or so, aren't you?"
Lainey rubbed the sleep from her eyes, amazed she had been out of it for so long considering the cold weather. "Yes, coach," she said, throwing her legs over the edge of the sled. "I've got to get more water."
"So do I." Scotch stood and took Lainey's hand, helping her rise. "I'll go with you."
Upending the child's sled to knock the snow from it, Lainey grabbed her pots and walked with Scotch. They stopped further on at Scotch's team so she could grab the same gear. They trudged through the snow toward the river.
Now fully awake, Lainey looked around the checkpoint. A lot of the mushers had decided to take a rest break here. Not everyone, however. She speculated on who had left early. Were they driving their dogs harder than she? Or was it just the forerunners, those who had arrived before her, that had left?
"So how'd it go?" Scotch asked as they approached the watering hole.
"Not bad. I still can't keep Heldig in booties. I don't know what she does, but they fly off as soon as we're on the trail." She grinned at Scotch's laughter.
"That's nothing new. Just make certain to keep ointment on her paws."
"I will." Lainey took Scotch's hand and pulled her close until they bumped up against one another as they walked. "I've missed you."
Scotch squeezed her hand. "I've missed you, too." She craned her neck around, searching for witnesses before giving Lainey a quick kiss.
They continued on and Scotch drew water, waiting for Lainey as she did the same. As they made the return journey, Lainey asked, "How did your trip go?"
"Not bad. Ran into a mama moose about ten miles from here, but she was more concerned for her safety than into challenging the dogs."
Lainey grimaced. "I'm glad you didn't have trouble with her."
"Me, too. I don't want to suffer an incident like Susan Butcher," Scotch said, referring to the 1985 Iditarod where a musher had to scratch early in the race because an enraged moose had attacked her team. At the time, she had been considered a potential winner for that year's race and, as it was, another woman won instead - Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod.
"No one does."
Back at the musher area, Scotch stopped at her team. "This is where I get off."
Grinning, Lainey said, "Oh, I think you'll be getting off somewhere else. In Nome if things go as planned." She chuckled at Scotch's blush. "I'll see you on the other side of Finger Lake?"
"Yup. Three miles past. I'll be there."
Unable to help herself, Lainey gave Scotch a long hug, not caring if anyone else saw them. Scotch returned the embrace and then they broke apart. Reluctant, Lainey took her pots of water down the line to her dogs.
Once more she set water to boiling. Another meal for her and another for her team soon bubbled away. Her dogs slept on, trained to take rest when they could get it, and she watched them fondly.
When the dog stew was ready, she distributed their plates, gently waking each animal with words and caresses. She used the chow in the cooler and transferred the freshly cooked meal into it afterwards. Again she made two trips, using the lukewarm water from her cooler to water the dogs. She ate her midnight snack, chicken and rice with broccoli and carrots mixed in, and used some of the freshly boiled water to brew instant coffee in her thermos. The rest she put into her cooler with the juice packs.
Her team was fed and frisky, ears up and eyes bright, a good sign. Lainey donned a pair of surgical gloves with hand warmers nestled in her palms to brave the frigid weather. She applied ointment to dog paws, all sixty-four of them, massaging the pads and wrists, checking for cuts and abrasions, looking for soreness in shoulders and hips. No indication of injury was forthcoming by the time she finished with her leaders, and she nodded to herself, satisfied.
Sleeping in the cold had stiffened her, and she winced when she stood upright again. Lainey removed her surgical gloves and collected the dog dishes, packing everything into her sled, or into a trash bag. Fortunately Strauss had given her the parka at the mushers' banquet - Irish had had time to adapt it for a hand warmer before the race began, and Lainey stuffed one into the pocket next to her sore ribs.
She scooped the ever present doggie doo into her trash bag, packed up the remainder of her belongings, and found someplace to dump the garbage. Then she sorted through her snacks and refilled her personal bag on the handlebars. Once everything was completed, she dug a watch out of her pocket and noted the time. Her six hours were nearly up. It was time to get back on the trail.
Lainey made another pass down her team, putting booties on all the dogs, even Heldig the Notoriously Barefooted.
The traditional husky licked her face, grinning at her as if to say 'Why bother?'
"Try, Heldig. Keep them on for a half hour, that's all I ask." Lainey gave the dog a hug.
She climbed aboard the runners and gave the team their commands in a quiet voice so as not to disturb the other mushers drowsing nearby. As they passed Scotch's position, she waved and Scotch blew a kiss in her direction. Wearing a silly grin, Lainey arrived at the checkpoint.
"You're out of here then?"
"Yep. Lainey Hughes. I came in eleventh."
The checker, a bleary eyed older woman located her name and time in. "Okay. You're out at . . . exactly eleven PM."
"When was the last departure?" Lainey asked.
She scanned the times listed. "Looks like Dave Creavey blew through the checkpoint three hours ago."
"Thanks." To her dogs, Lainey called softly, "Ready? Let's go."
As they headed away from the checkpoint, darkness descended. Lainey switched on her head lamp. Her team ran easily, the rest having done them good. It was eerily silent as they traveled, the only sounds were the swish of snow and her dogs panting as they ran. Overhead the sky was dark, scattered clouds blotting out the vivid starlight she had grown accustomed to out here in the bush.
A trail marker came into view ahead, and she ordered the dogs to the left to follow it. They climbed into a spruce forest, the path wide and smooth. Despite the apparent ease, Lainey kept her attention on the trees they passed, not wanting a branch to sweep her off the sled. The dogs were refreshed and lively. If she fell off, they could very well make it to the next checkpoint without her. She did not relish a thirty mile hike to Skwentna.
The hills were low, but Lainey took the time to run up them. She needed the exercise to remain awake, and it eased the load for her team if they did not have to drag her weight as well as the gear packed sled. Then they slid back down to the river, an easy run.
It seemed no time before she saw lights ahead. The Skwentna checkpoint loomed in the dark, and she directed her team to the welcoming lights. She pulled in, ran through the inevitable sled and vet checks, and guided her team to where the food drops were stored. There were no drops at Finger Lake. They would have to carry everything they needed for the next seventy-five miles until Rainy Pass. Between Finger Lake and Rainy Pass was the treacherous Happy River valley to traverse and they would need to be prepared for damage to the sled and extra food and gear for the team.
Lainey found her three bags, color coded with her name on them. She lugged them out of the storage area and onto the sled before urging her team a little further away. As soon as she stopped them, she went down the line with a bag of white fish, snacking them.
Once they were occupied with their treats, she returned to the bags and cut them open with her Leatherman. She opened her sled bag, and began a quick inventory, carefully looking over her notes. Everything had been shipped and seemed in good shape. Comparing what Scotch suggested and what she already had, Lainey transferred gear and food into her sled.
She was pleased to note that she had some extra dog food. Flagging down a passing volunteer, Lainey asked for the location of the donation area. She would drop the extra there for other mushers who might have need due to accidents, ill planning or undelivered drops. If no one claimed the leftovers, they would be donated to locals.
When she was satisfied, she returned to the checkpoint and signed out. Twenty-two minutes. Not as good as Scotch's times, but Lainey felt pleased at the time in and out. Not bad for a rookie. Her notes warned for vigilance as she left Skwentna. It did not take Lainey long to see why. The area had a heavy population of dog mushers, and dozens of trails crossed hers. Fortunately, once she got onto the river the maze of befuddling paths lessened and the team traveled easily, eating up the miles.
Lainey yawned. "Not good," she said aloud. The river run was long and boring, and it seemed to go on forever. About forty miles from the checkpoint the trail was supposed to head into the hills through spruce and alder trees. She would need to keep awake or risk passing the trail. Retrieving her thermos, she drank straight from the ingenious pop top rather than attempt to pour a cup. The instant coffee was strong and relatively hot, its bitter taste causing her eyes to widen.
"Whoo! That ought to do it!" she exclaimed. Her dogs continued gamely on, ears twitching backward when she spoke. She capped the thermos and put it away, imagining the sensation of caffeine coursing through her blood stream.
Overhead the clouds thickened. As the team glided effortlessly over the river, a gentle snow began to fall. Snowflakes hit the brilliant light of her head lamp, the flurry seeming stronger than it truly was due to the speed of the dogs. The sight was distracting, and Lainey finally turned the lamp off to keep from flinching from the stuff darting toward her face. As soon as her eyes adjusted, she realized how truly light it was with all the whiteness surrounding her. The snowfall returned to its non threatening appearance, her only indication of its existence the chill spots of flakes as they hit her nose and cheeks.
As the snow did not get any worse, Lainey's fears of a blizzard became baseless. Besides, someone would have warned her at the last checkpoint if the weather was going to turn horrendously bad.
She stopped and snacked the dogs once on the river, quickly going over their feet and replacing booties before setting off again. Too many interruptions for too long a time could disrupt their run / rest schedule. While some delays were to be expected, the closer Lainey could keep them on their planned itinerary, the better. As they ran, she finished her coffee and snacked on a slice of banana bread she had put into an interior pocket to thaw with her body heat.
Thinking she saw a trail marker ahead, Lainey turned her head lamp on again. There it was, the trail leading into low hills. The snow continued its slow if relentless fall. She wondered how long it had been falling in this area.
"Sholo, Trace, haw."
Her leaders took the trail up off the river and into trees. They slowed quite a bit as they began the incline. Lainey had been hours standing on the runners. She began to see why some mushers had attached folding stools to their sleds. They, at least, would be more comfortable through the race. She decided to get off the runners for a little exercise.
The snow here was powder, and Lainey sank to her ankles. Up ahead, the trail was well marked, giving the appearance of being solid. As she trotted behind the sled, she realized her error. It had to have been snowing in this area for some time, leaving close to a foot of snow on the well-marked trail. It was no wonder her team was slowing.
They continued on, running over low hills yet still moving steadily upward. As they did, the unpacked snow grew deeper until Sholo and Trace were walking more often than running. Lainey cursed and called a halt, making sure to anchor the sled so it would not slide back the way they had come.
There was no where to get off the trail here, so she knew she could not take a long break. She had no idea when the musher behind her had left the last checkpoint. For all she knew, he or she was right on her tail. It was not time to snack the dogs, but she decided to do so anyway. They needed the extra energy and encouragement to make it the few miles to Finger Lake.
At her sled, she got out her snow shoes and donned them before going up the gang line with treats. Each dog received lavish attention and thanks before she finally made it to her leaders. Sholo appeared a bit cowed. It was no wonder. He had never been on the Iditarod before and did not know what to expect. His experiences were with the mid range races. Lainey gave him lots of cuddles, wondering if she should swap him out. Montana, whose experience was the same as Sholo's, appeared eager and willing.
"I think you need a break, boy," she told Sholo. "You've done a great job. Good dog, good boy." She gave him an extra piece of fish, and detached him from the gang line. "What do you say, huh? Give you a break?" Lainey pulled Sholo back one spot. In a few moments, she led Montana to the front. When the switch was completed, she gave Sholo another affectionate rub, so that he knew his displacement had not been because of something he had done. She was not sure if the dogs understood that sort of thing, but if they did . . .
Lainey trooped back to her sled, but did not climb onto the runners. She popped the snow hook and ordered the dogs forward. The new blood at the front of the line sped things up a bit, but they were still moving at a walk. Lainey moved past the dogs, calling encouragement until she reached the front of the line. There she grabbed the line and began breaking the trail herself.
It was arduous work, and she had to stop and remove her parka or risk sweating too much. Sweat soaked clothing rapidly froze in these temperatures, and was a constant threat of hypothermia. Shedding extra clothes had been drilled into her by the Fullers, the entire concept at odds with her tropical oriented experience.
On they went, inching along it seemed. Eventually, they broke through the trees and Lainey looked out onto a frozen lake. The snow had stopped falling, as well, but it still remained deep and loose.
"Passing," someone called.
Startled, Lainey looked around to see a head lamp shining about a hundred feet away. Her team, tired from their exertions, hardly made a fuss as she directed them to one side now that the trail had widened. When there was room, the musher moved past, his dogs a bit more alert than her own. She wondered how long he had been back there benefiting from her struggles, and could not help but feel slightly resentful.
The musher passed and pulled to a stop just in front of her team. He stepped off his sled and walked back toward her. She recognized him. He was Drew Owens, a veteran of the race having finished the Iditarod four times.
"How you doing?" he asked.
"Not bad. Tired."
"Yeah. The trail here can be pretty bad some days. Since you broke the trail coming through there, I thought I'd do the same for you across the lake to the checkpoint. It's only fair."
Surprise tinged her exhaustion. "That sounds great. Thanks."
He grinned, his frosted beard crackling. "You're welcome."
While he made his preparations to break trail, she took the opportunity to treat her dogs. Heldig's bare paws had developed little balls of snow and ice under the toes, and Lainey carefully broke them apart before applying ointment and yet another set of booties.
"Yo! Why are you blocking the trail?"
Lainey stood to see the irritated newcomer pulling up beside her. "We have to break trail to Finger Lake. Drew's going to take the lead."
The disgruntled musher appeared momentarily nonplused before shrugging her shoulders. "Oh. I guess coming up behind you I didn't realize how bad it was."
"It was bad." Lainey packed up her things but returned to the head of her team. Regardless of the two mushers leading the way, the snow would still be somewhat loose, and she planned on walking the rest of the way to the next checkpoint. Ahead of her, Owens began the trek toward the lights visible in the distance, followed by the recent arrival. Lainey pulled her dogs back onto the trail.
The going was much better with two mushers breaking the trail before her. It seemed the snow had not fallen so thick here, a mixed blessing considering what she had gone through in the hills. When the teams started out distancing Lainey, she removed her snow shoes and got back onto the sled to ride the rest of the way to the checkpoint.
Up ahead, the lights grew brighter. Lainey grinned as she realized she was seeing a massive bonfire party near Shell Lake lodge. She had been told to expect it, but the reality was more than she had believed possible out here in the middle of nowhere. The noise carrying across the frozen Finger Lake sounded like the shindig was still in full swing. Despite enjoying the silence and solitude of the wilderness, her heart lifted at the sight and sound of the celebrants. It was hard to believe that it was five or six in the morning. They must have been going at it since the first musher arrived.
Someone noted the approaching head lamps on the lake and a cheer rang through the wee hours of the morning. Checkers and volunteers spilled out of a tent, and several of the well wishers moved closer as Owens mounted the embankment leading to the checkpoint, followed by his fellow mushers.
"Five forty-three AM," the checker said, marking it on his board. "Number thirty-five. Staying?"
"No. Blowing through."
"Got it." He stood back and waved the vet volunteers forward while Lainey produced her dogs' medical notes. After a thorough check she was released.
She looked up in time to have a photo taken of her. Blinking against the flash, she barely made out her editor grinning apologetically.
Strauss trotted forward. "How's it going?"
"Great. Had to break trail through the hills outside Skwentna, but otherwise, we're doing well." She glanced over her team, all the dogs looking over their shoulders at her to see what they were doing next. "I've got to get going. I'm supposed to meet Scotch three miles out. If I stay much longer, these guys are going to expect to be fed here and may mutiny."
Strauss nodded understanding. "She's about an hour behind you now. Maybe less - she's got a good team according to Don."
"Where is Don?" Lainey asked, looking over his shoulder at the revelers.
"Snoozing. I told him I'd wake him when Scotch came through."
"Tell him hi. I've got to get going."
Strauss stepped back. "We're flying to Nikolai."
"I'm taking a sixer in Nikolai," she said, referring to a six hour rest break. "I'll see you there."
Lainey officially checked out and left Finger Lake. The side of the airstrip was peppered with small bush planes outfitted with skis instead of landing gear. The party like atmosphere combined with the comings and goings of reporters and race fans would be a detriment to the rest she and her team needed.
The trail out of Finger Lake was a winding one as it followed the Skwentna River. Since the next leg would make or break her team, Lainey waited until they were well out of sight and sound from the parties before she pulled off the trail. Scotch would be by soon, and they would spend this break together.
She gave her dogs a quick snack as she removed booties, rubbed ointment into paws, and did the rest of her chores. Again she fired up the cookers, using melted snow to prepare the next meal out. For now, she fed the team from their cooler and used her cooler for their second watering.
Since there was no straw here, Lainey dug into her sled bag and produced blankets for her dogs. By the time she collected their plates, they were snuggled into their blankets and drifting off to sleep. Lainey yawned, a wave of drowsiness flowing over her, but she forced herself back to her chores. By the time she finished eating her breakfast - two slices of pizza, wrapped in tin foil and heated on the lid of her cook pot - another dog meal was in their cooler. She drained two of her juice packs to rehydrate, dropping half full frozen bottles of Gatorade into her cooler.
As she worked, she speculated on how the race was progressing. She had arrived thirty-five out of seventy-six, and Owens had left immediately after his veterinarian check. The other musher had remained at Finger Lake. That meant that at her last rest break, at least twenty mushers had gone through Yentna Station while she took a break. Scotch had started the race an hour and thirty-six minutes behind her and now was an hour back, maybe less. Lainey checked her watch and noted the time. It would not be long before Scotch arrived, at that rate.
She tried not to feel disheartened by her fall in the standings. The reality was that it really did not matter who was where unless you were at the front of the pack, and even that membership would change as the days crawled past. It was a rare thing for the first musher reaching the halfway point at Cripple checkpoint to actually come in first in Nome. By the time Lainey reached Cripple, the mushers would be settled into the front, middle or rear of the pack for the remainder of the race. Between now and then, accidents could happen - gear could irreplaceably break down, kennel cough could sicken the dogs, and Mother Nature could intervene to cause even the hardiest of souls to scratch. She reminded herself that though she was falling back, her goal was not to win but to complete the race.
As Lainey ate, three more mushers went by, nodding or calling a greeting as they went. Veterans all, she wondered if they had rested at Finger Lake or avoided the crowds like herself. She packed up the tin foil from her breakfast, drank another fruit drink, and devoured a piece of carrot cake. Then she pulled her arctic sleeping bag from the sled. She had about four hours to nap before getting the dogs ready to go.
Another musher came up before Lainey got into her sleeping bag. She smiled in welcome as Scotch drove past and pulled in front of her. Foregoing her nap, Lainey walked up the line to greet her friend.
"Hey, you're early."
Scotch set her snow hook and wrapped Lainey in an embrace. "Had to catch up to you. I needed a hug."
Lainey laughed and returned the squeeze. "Always glad to oblige." She sighed, eyes closed. Sometime over the next couple of days, Scotch would go beyond Lainey if her luck held. For now, she welcomed what intimacy she could get.
"I'd better snack these guys," Scotch murmured, obviously not wanting to release her.
Looking at the expectant team, Lainey chuckled. "Yeah, you'd better." She forced herself away to allow her friend to begin her tasks.
They spent the next half hour discussing what was behind them. Scotch had not had the misfortune of breaking trail toward Finger Lake. She had traveled in a pack of four who had apparently followed another front runner. The snow had stopped falling, as well, so no new accumulation had piled up to impede their way. Don had been awake for her arrival, and sent greetings to Lainey along with a message that several reporters wanted to interview her in Nikolai.
"I'm supposed to do the interviews, not be their subject," she grumbled.
"That's the price you pay for fame," Scotch said airily. She ducked a snowball thrown in her direction. "Ah, ah, ah. None of that. We need to conserve our energy for Rainy Pass."
Lainey saluted. "Yes, ma'am."
"Best get some sleep while you can. You'll need it."
"I know." Lainey stood and gave Scotch another hug. "I'm glad you're out here with me."
Scotch grinned. "Ditto that."
Her private call answered, she returned to the sled, pausing a moment to see Scotch's knit cap poking out the top of her sleeping bag. A fond smile curved her lips, her mind's eye supplying the vision of Scotch in her sleep shorts last summer, thighs and belly bare to her wandering gaze. The thought of arriving in Nome to finally succumb to Scotch's touch caused her chest to ache and her blood to rush to points south.
Lainey shook herself as a team appeared from around a bend in the path. She waved as the musher passed, hearing only the gentle tinkle of gear and panting as they slid along. It was time to get things together.
Since she and Scotch planned on going through the pass jointly, she had another hour before waking her dogs. Lainey would delay her time out to put them together for the worst of the next thirty miles. She returned to her sled, and began the process of packing up the gear she would not need for the rest of the break.
Eventually another watch beeped in demand, and Lainey smiled when she heard the muttered curses from the sled in front of her. It was good to know she was not the only one beginning to tire on the second day of the race. She started the cookers in considerably better humor as Scotch stumbled away to heed her bladder. By the time her friend had returned, coffee was brewed in Lainey's thermos and she began the process of waking her dogs.
They worked independently, their silence punctuated by praise voiced to their teams and the occasional bark or snort from a dog. When another team passed by, half of Lainey's dogs gave voice, not just her usual trash talkers, eager to get back on the trail. Scotch's team echoed the sentiment.
Once they were both ready, Scotch approached Lainey. Her eyes were a bit bloodshot, but she looked as enthusiastic as the dogs. "You about ready?"
"Yep," Lainey said, closing her sled bag. "You?"
Lainey wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. "I've heard that about you."
She feigned indignation. "Who's been talking?"
Scotch laughed. "Well, at least I'm not the only one."
Lainey grimaced and looked down the gang line. "Traitors."
Returning to business, Scotch said, "All right. You remember what was said at the mushers' meeting about Rainy Pass?"
"Steep descent, two switchbacks."
"Yeah. There'll be no stopping until you get to the bottom, so hang on tight. Pay attention to trail markers so you don't miss the switchbacks."
Lainey felt a shiver of dread. If she could get through the next day or so, the rest of the race would be a cake walk. She nodded understanding, wondering if her dogs were rested enough. If they did not run as fast as the sled, they may be injured. Scotch had kept on speaking, and she forced herself back to the lecture.
"It's just like the switchbacks back home, only a steeper incline. Half of your team has already been through here; the others are at least used to the sudden turns. Remember to stand on one runner or the other to distribute the weight on the turns." Scotch broke off with a smile. "And don't worry. You've got a great team, and you're a great musher. I'll wait at the bottom for you."
Spirits somewhat buoyed, Lainey squared her shoulders. "Just get out of the trail when you do, okay?"
Scotch chuckled and stepped forward for another hug. "For luck."
Lainey held her tight, suddenly thinking she had made a mistake in going into this sled dog race.
"Nome or bust."
The confidence Scotch felt for her seeped through her trepidation. They had a date in Nome, and Lainey intended to get there on her own steam rather than in a plane. "Nome or bust."
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