by D Jordan Redhawk
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The trail twisted back and forth upon itself as it climbed. Despite the heavy snows reported in the area and the many mushers having gone before them, the path was a rough one with tree roots and and beaver jams threatening to upset the sleds. Crowded with timber and brush, Lainey ducked a number of times to keep away from sweepers. Yellow caution tape fluttered everywhere as various dangers were flagged by the Iditarod trail committee. Regardless of their attempt to carve a decent trail from the mess, Lainey's sled bucked and rattled as it went, the vibrations in her palms tingling unpleasantly.
Her team well rested, they held good speed as they followed Scotch's sled up and up and up. They broke through the trees for a bit, cresting and following a five thousand foot ridge. The scene was spectacular, and Lainey stared in awe at the wilderness before her until forest blocked her view. She forced her attention back to the trail. There was no time to gawk, not if she wanted to get through this leg of the journey in one piece.
Up ahead, Scotch stopped her dogs, raising her hand to signal Lainey to do the same. Swallowing hard, Lainey called her team to a halt. Her eyes widened when a stranger appeared out of the trees to talk to Scotch. Who the hell was that? They were ten miles from Finger Lake, and the man's jacket looked too new and pristine to be a musher.
Scotch spoke a few words with him and shook his hand. He bowed a couple of times as they talked. She tied off her snub line and walked back down the trail, the man returning into the trees.
"Who was that?" Lainey asked.
"A Japanese reporter. Said his name was Tatsuya something," Scotch said. "He has a few of his colleagues on the other side of the canyon taping mushers as they go down this side."
"Great," Lainey said, her tone sarcastic. "So when I roll down the canyon, every one in Japan will have a laugh like 'America's Funniest Videos'."
Scotch smiled. "You won't roll. He said there have been a couple of close calls, but the cliff edges are well marked. You ready?"
Not liking the thought of cliff edges, Lainey nevertheless nodded. "Yeah. Let's get this over with before I faint from terror."
"You'll be fine." Scotch squeezed her shoulder, her eyes intently staring into Lainey's. "We're going to fly down that canyon and hit the bottom in less than three minutes. You won't have time to be scared before it'll be over with."
Lainey blew out a breath. "Let's do it."
Scotch stared a moment longer, gauging Lainey's emotions. Lainey raised her chin and leveled a calm gaze back at her. Scotch smiled and released her shoulder, returning to her team.
When Scotch's back was turned, Lainey tried not to hyperventilate. She gnawed her lower lip, nervously eying the dogs. They appeared oblivious of their mistress' anguish, tails wagging as they awaited their commands. Lainey reached down and prepared to pull her snow hook, knowing she had to stow it securely. If the trail down was as rough as the trail up, she did not need a sharp pointed instrument bouncing around.
Up ahead, Scotch released her snub line and hook. Lainey clearly heard her voice as she ordered the dogs forward. They traveled no more than thirty feet before disappearing over the ridge.
Hands shaking, Lainey pulled out her watch, wanting to give Scotch a full minute head start. When the second hand clicked past the point of no return, she forced herself to release the snow hook. "Ready. Let's go!" she called with more bravado than she thought possible. Sholo and Trace, who was back in the lead after their rest break, surged forward.
When they reached the place where Scotch had vanished, the dogs dropped down onto the trail. Lainey's stomach swooped with the sudden altitude change and she held her handlebars with a death grip. Her team ran full tilt, Jonah and Samson looking more like woolly bears attempting to evade the sled than pulling wheel dogs. Lainey's feet left the runners, at first standing on the drag mat between them. When that did not slow the sled enough, she stomped on the brake bar, the metal digging ruts into the trail. The sled no longer threatened to overrun her team, but still rushed down the trail.
Yellow caution tape here looked more like a spider web than anything else, though she hardly registered it as she flew along. Ahead of her it looked like the trail simply stopped, a makeshift fence of logs and tape pretending to be a dead end. Lainey's mind was numb, her eyes wide as they careened toward the barrier.
"Haw!" she bellowed, and her leaders took the first switchback.
Standing on the brakes seemed to help. At least her first wheel dogs did not appear to be in danger of imminent crushing. It did not slow her enough, however, and she screwed her eyes nearly closed as she approached the jury-rigged barrier at breakneck speed. At the proper moment, she leapt to her left runner, pulling with all her might to compensate for the whiplash effect. Then she was on the next section of trail. She felt a fleeting moment of relief before jumping back onto the brake bar. Fifty yards ahead, another dead end appeared. This one seemed a little less dangerous if the sparser amount of caution tape was any indication, but Lainey knew from her notes that the cliff on the other side was still a fifty foot drop. Her leaders arrived at the turn.
They took the turn with smooth precision, and she felt a burble of pleasure at their elegance before preparing for her part of the journey. She hopped onto the right runner and pulled. The sled tipped left, despite her counter balance, and she felt a moment of sheer terror as the runner she stood on lifted off the trail.
She was through the turn and the sled thumped back to the ground. Heart in her throat, she swore a blue streak for the next fifty yards. The next bend came and she ordered the turn, easily negotiating it until she came onto a somewhat level surface.
"Whoa!" she called, seeing Scotch ahead waiting for her. As soon as her dogs came to a halt, Lainey gratefully set the snow hook. She took two steps away from her sled, her knees trembling from a combination of exertion and adrenaline, and flopped into a snow bank.
Scotch laughed and whooped. She trotted up to Lainey and grabbed her hands, forcing her back to her feet. "You did it! I told you!"
Lainey's fear faded, replaced with a flush of pride and exhilaration as Scotch hugged her. "I almost lost it on the second turn," she admitted. She looked back up the side of the canyon, awed by the height she had just traversed at breakneck speeds. "My runner left the trail completely. I thought for sure I was going to tip over."
Cuffing Lainey's shoulder, Scotch released her. "You didn't balance the load when you packed it, did you?"
No matter how hard she tried, Lainey could not feel chagrin at her mistake. She had taken on the Happy River descent and survived! Her grin was cheeky as she said, "Nope. But it's a lesson learned!"
"Yeah, I'll bet." Scotch stepped back. "Let's snack the dogs and get out of here. Someone could be right behind us, and there's no room to get off the trail until Puntilla Lake."
The dogs were still well rested from their break. As Lainey fed them moose liver, they frisked in the snow, picking up her excitement as she showered them with praise. She paused only long enough to get her camera out and take a few pictures of the canyon wall. Then they were ready to go.
They mushed along, following the Yentna River. The river had not frozen solid here, and Lainey could see standing water on the ice as well as running water through occasional gaps. She wondered if anyone had fallen in, but saw no sled tracks near the holes. She supposed it happened sometimes, though not so far today. Lainey shivered in sympathy with anyone suffering such a fate.
The trail began to climb again, the hill to her right steepening until they traversed a narrow ridge. Ahead she saw Scotch apparently leaning on her right runner as they went around a corner, and she followed suit. The path tilted down to Lainey's left, rising above open water on the river, and she compensated for the angle. Regardless, she felt a faint tremor of movement sideways and she called frantically to her team, "Let's go! Let's go!"
Her team put on a burst of speed, loping across what Lainey now realized was a twenty foot ridge of ice. Before her sled could slide off the path, the dogs had her past the danger. For second time in an hour, she gripped her handlebars in an effort to remain standing. Good God, what would the Farewell Burn be like?
Lainey drew herself back to the task at hand, seeing the trail incline sharply. In reaction to the extreme climb, her team slowed, and she forced her shaking legs from the runners. The exercise helped burn off the excess adrenaline, and soon her legs were steady as she pushed the sled up Happy Hill. It was with great relief that they reached the peak and came onto a level path.
She breathed a sigh as the trail broke into a meadow for a short bit. It seemed she had been running forever, but the trail between checkpoints was only thirty miles distant. Before Lainey could become too complacent, however, she watched Scotch disappear into another steep descent.
More caution signs met her gaze as she dipped down. The trail twisted back and forth, but no switchbacks were forthcoming. She easily held the sled back on the sharp slope, her dogs running easy and heeding her commands as they went. At the bottom of the descent, she came out along Puntilla Lake.
The wide expanse of level ground elated Lainey. The worst of this leg was over. It was smooth sailing to Rainy Pass Lodge from here. To celebrate, Scotch had pulled off the well-marked trail to snack her dogs.
When Lainey stopped, Scotch walked back to her, a wide grin on her face. "Take off your cap," she said.
"What?" Lainey removed her musher's cap. "Why?"
"This is from Mom." Scotch held up a knit stocking hat of bright green. On it was a huge yellow smiley face wearing its own musher's cap, the flaps dangling on either side. The words written beside the face proudly proclaimed 'I Survived Happy River.' Scotch pulled it onto Lainey's head until it covered her ears.
Lainey laughed, dragging it off her head to get a better look. "That's priceless! Where did she get it?"
Scotch shrugged. "Don't know. But she wanted me to put it in my food drop so I could give it to you after you made it through."
She put the hat back on, and stuck her musher cap into her personal bag. "Thanks."
This time they snacked themselves as well as the dogs, filling up on trail mix, crackers, and buttered pumpkin bread. Lainey finished the last of her now lukewarm coffee and drank a thawed Gatorade. She grimaced as she watched Scotch eat a half stick of butter right from the package.
Scotch wrapped the second half in its paper. "Says you. At least I won't be freezing my butt off like you."
Lainey grimaced in answer. She heard noises and looked back at the trail behind them. "Sounds like somebody else is coming."
Standing, Scotch squinted up the hillside looking for the trail. "They're coming mighty fast. Wonder if it's a rookie."
In answer a team of dogs burst through onto the level trail. It took a few moments for Lainey to realize that there was no musher on the sled. She stood up, mouth open, not certain what she should do as the team headed toward their position.
"Whoa!" Scotch called, stepping out into the trail. "Whoa! Lainey! See if you can get onto the sled as it passes."
Lainey dropped the detritus of her snacks onto her sled bag, adrenaline once again pumping through her system.
The new team heeded Scotch's command and slowed down as they neared, but did not stop. Frisky and excited, they trotted toward Scotch, making the sled an easy enough target for Lainey to board. She ordered them to halt, firmly stepping onto the brake to further impede their progress. By the time Scotch got hold of the leaders' collars, they had come to a full stop and were rolling in the snow to cool off.
Scotch looked around their immediate area. "Let's get them over there," she said, indicating a stand of sturdy trees. "We can tie them there until their musher shows up."
Lainey glanced back up the perilous trail. "What if he's injured?" She saw the same concern in Scotch's eyes.
"We don't know where he lost the team. If it was as far back as the first descent, it could take us hours to get there by sled. Chances are good someone has already found him coming from the other direction." She led the dogs toward the trees. "If he's closer, it'd still be better for us to get to the checkpoint and notify someone. They can get to him faster with a snow machine."
Nodding, Lainey helped get the sled into position and tied the snub line to a tree. She set the snow hook as firmly as possible. "Isn't this considered outside assistance? Won't we get in trouble or be disqualified?"
Scotch opened the sled bag and located the Iditarod promotional package. "No, this is a legal action. If he's near enough to walk, great. Or he can hitch a ride with another team; it's one thing to assist someone to keep going when they should scratch. It's another to leave somebody out here in the bush to die." She found the bib number so she could notify the committee who it was and put things away.
She and Lainey returned to their sleds, their dogs eager to get going again.
"This ever happen to you?"
Scotch's face reddened, but she smiled. "Yeah. Once. My first Yukon Quest. A sweeper got me while I was dozing on the sled. Knocked me flat." She chuckled. "I walked for an hour or more before I found the team tied off the trail waiting for me."
Lainey grinned. "Just returning the favor, huh?"
At their parking spots, they split up and went to their respective sleds. As they urged their teams forward, Lainey spared one glance back at the dogs curling up to take a nap as they awaited their lost owner.
The Iditarod utilized one of the small cabins skirting Rainy Pass Lodge as a checkpoint and Lainey accompanied Scotch until they reached the small crowd of volunteers gathering there. It was rather fortuitous that Scotch's team led the way; when young Chibee noticed a herd of horses near the lodge, he voiced a howl and attempted to break ranks and give chase. The rest of Lainey's team chose to follow the familiar scent of Scotch's dogs, and Chibee was forced to abandon his pursuit.
"Five fifty-six PM. Welcome to Rainy Pass," the checker said. He marked her time and grinned as he looked at her head. "Nice hat," he said, gesturing at her with a pencil.
"Thanks!" Lainey chuckled. She tugged on it. "I think I deserve about a dozen more of them."
"I hear you," the checker agreed. "Maybe you'll get a hundred for the Farewell Burn."
"Man, don't remind me!" Lainey glanced at his clipboard, pleased to note she had not dropped behind the mid thirties placing. "Scotch and I found a team with no musher just on the edge of Puntilla Lake. We tied them down there."
"All right." He wrote something on his paperwork. "We'll get somebody out there to check on the situation." He waved her on to the veterinarians waiting nearby.
She quickly fell into the checkpoint routine, assisting the vets with her dogs, picking up her food drop, and going over her team with a critical eye. All the animals seemed in good spirits, though Heldig's paws appeared a little worse for wear. Lainey used a different salve for the pads of Heldig's feet, telling her in no uncertain terms that she was going to staple her booties on if things continued this way. The dog was less than impressed, kissing Lainey's nose with impudence.
As Lainey continued her camp chores, a handful of reporters surrounded her, joined by Ben Strauss. Her friend stood back, allowing the others to ask questions about the trail through Happy River Valley. Several took pictures of her new headgear. When she mentioned her trainer, Scotch, had a lot to do with her successful arrival, they drifted away to get an interview with her as well.
Relieved at the loss of attention, Lainey finished cooking the dog food and loaded it into the cooler.
"That sounded pretty exciting."
She grinned at Strauss. "I'll say. I think you'd get a kick out of doing this. You should consider a leave of absence sometime and give it a go. You're always into the dangerous survival stuff."
"Maybe I will." He gestured toward the lodge. "Come on. I'll buy you dinner. The moose stew is good."
Not wanting to get on the wrong side of the 'no assistance' rule, Lainey said, "Better yet, I'll buy."
Strauss shrugged agreement.
It felt a little odd to be leaving her team. She glanced over the sleeping dogs, oblivious to her departure. "They'll be fine," Strauss said, reading her mind. "A lot of the mushers grab a bite here rather than eat what they're carrying. It'll do you good to see people."
She laughed. "All right! I'm convinced."
They left the sled parking area and walked to the lodge. Even with the potential for a fresh cooked meal before her, Lainey stifled a yawn. It was the end of the second day and she had had about six hours sleep, total. She was probably doing better than most rookies were, having the experience of Scotch to draw upon. Lainey could not fathom doing this without the extensive training she had put herself through since June.
The lodge looked like what a lodge should look like. Walls of thick logs, rough hewn bannisters on the large covered porch, and the requisite old dog drowsing by the door met Lainey's gaze. She was surprised to see the musher Drew Owens sitting on a bench, hands in his parka pockets, feet stretched out and crossed at the ankles. He appeared to be sleeping, and she wondered why he would be napping out here rather than inside.
Strauss opened the door for her and Lainey stepped into a fairly busy establishment. A large dining room was off to the side and seemed to have quite a number of reporters, volunteers, and mushers enjoying each others' company. Her arrival sparked a round of welcome and toasts, and Lainey waved at the diners as Strauss led her to a table.
The warmth here beat down upon Lainey, acclimated as she was to the frigid temperatures outside. She almost felt the sweat popping up on her forehead and she hastily began removing her outer clothes. The skin on her face stung and her sinuses began clogging as the tissue swelled up. By the time she reached Strauss' table, she felt like her head was full of cotton. No wonder Owens was sleeping outside. If she had not offered to buy dinner, she would have turned around and gone back out to her dogs.
"Ugh," she said, sitting down. Other mushers who braved the indoors were half clad, and she followed their lead, removing mukluks and liners, until only socks covered her feet. Next time she would bring her spare liners and fresh socks inside.
"What can I get you?" a man asked. "The moose stew is hot and ready or we can grill you up a sandwich, but that'll take more than a few minutes."
Lainey smiled despite her discomfort. "Served a lot of Iditarod mushers, have you?"
"Oh, yeah. We're glad to keep our doors open every year for the race."
"The stew will be fine. And about three gallons of coffee."
The waiter took Strauss' order and left the table.
"You okay?" Strauss asked.
Lainey rubbed her face. "Kind of fuzzy from the heat. It feels like I've got a sinus infection."
"Interesting. I suppose it makes sense. You've literally been out in the weather for over forty-eight hours."
"Yeah." Lainey tried to breathe through her nose and failed. "Ugh."
The food was delivered and she dug into the hot meal. Despite her physical discomfort from the heat, the stew triggered a massive hunger and she ate as if starved.
"So. You and Scotch?"
Lainey sighed. Howry had warned her it was coming, and here it was. "Yeah, looks that way."
His brow furrowed. "You're not sure?"
"Well, it's not like we've followed through on things. We've been concentrating on getting through this race before we explore any . . . options."
"I thought you told me she was straight."
Lainey stopped eating and closed her eyes. "Yeah. I did." She looked at Strauss. "At the time, it was only wishful thinking on my part. I really doubted she was gay. I had no idea she would be amenable to a -" She paused, searching for the right word. Liaison? Dalliance? Affair? "A relationship," she finished.
His eyebrows shot up at the term. "A relationship?" he repeated.
She was sure she blushed, though how he could see it through her weather reddened skin she did not know. "Yeah. I don't think this is going to be just a fling."
"Wow." He sat back in his chair and stared at her.
"What?" she demanded, slightly irritated.
Strauss smiled. "I just never thought I'd see the day you'd be off the market."
Lainey grunted in mock aggravation, though her insides shivered with trepidation. "I don't know about that. We'll see how it goes after the race." She had admitted to herself that she loved Scotch, but she had no idea if Scotch felt the same. There was still a chance that her hope for more than a one night stand would be crushed, that Scotch had no desire for more. It was something on which Lainey did not want to dwell.
He seemed to understand the dangerous emotional trail she was on, and wisely refrained from making further comment. "Don seemed to be worried I'd fire you over the issue."
"Well, I did lead you on about my real reasons for pitching the story," Lainey said, pointing her spoon at him.
"True, but the pitch was solid or I wouldn't have bought it. The fact that you dived into the challenge after my bosses made their changes only sweetened the pot. You could have said no to the gig."
Lainey did not disabuse him of the notion that she could have put a halt to the entire deal. He had no idea how driven she had been to bask in everything that was Scotch Fuller. "I guess," she said with a shrug.
Another round of greetings warned her of new arrivals. Howry slid into the chair next to Strauss, and Scotch draped her parka over the one beside Lainey before sitting down.
"Moose stew at Rainy Pass Lodge," she said, happily tucking a napkin at her throat. "Best thing since sliced bread."
"I agree," Lainey said, returning to her food.
"Here you go, Scotch." The waiter set a bowl of stew and a plate of bread and butter before Scotch. "You want hot chocolate?"
"Come here often?" Howry asked after the man delivered Scotch's beverage.
"Once or twice," she said in an off-handed way, smiling when he laughed.
Strauss eyed Scotch. "You've gained a few places since the start of the race. Think you'll win?"
She chuckled through a mouthful of stew, swallowing before answering him. "We've got a long way to go before we think about that. The key is to gradually pull forward, not make a run for it in the first couple of days. Exhaust the dogs now and they'll have nothing to offer down the trail."
"Still, you're considered a contender this year," Howry said.
"Doesn't mean I'll make it."
"Is that modesty talking?" Strauss asked.
Scotch shook her head. "No, reality. I can have the best team, the best times, and the best weather, but anything can happen out there. Hell, if I bust my sled in the Farewell Burn and can't find a fix or alternative on the other side, I scratch. If the weather takes a turn for the worse and blizzard conditions make visibility zero, I could easily get lost off the trail. Lots of things can happen that I have no control over."
"Why do you do it, if not to win?"
Lainey, curious to know the answer to that question, gave Strauss an intent look. Was he putting Scotch through her paces for Lainey's sake? Trying to draw Scotch out to measure her character and integrity, to make sure she was good enough for Lainey? For his part, Strauss ignored her, though no doubt knew what she was thinking. Lainey puzzled over a combined sense of pleasure at his paternal attempt and annoyance with his behavior. Who did he think he was, her father? He had no right to judge her choice of partner.
The conversation continued without her, and Lainey hastened to catch up.
"Why climb Mt. Everest? Why go on safari to hunt lions or rhinos? Why get up every morning?" Scotch said, her food forgotten. "It's a challenge. Out here my survival depends on me and my actions. It's difficult sometimes, yes, but satisfying on levels you can't even imagine."
Strauss watched her for a long moment. "So winning doesn't matter?"
Scotch's serious demeanor faded. "Didn't say that," she said, winking at him.
Lainey joined the others in laughter. That easy confidence Scotch held radiated around the table, and Lainey drew it in like air. This was the key, this was the foundation of the self-assurance that had first drawn her to Scotch. Knowing the basis for it did not lessen her desire one whit, either.
Howry held up his beer. "To survival."
"And winning," Strauss added, lifting an iced tea.
Scotch and Lainey both chimed in. "To winning."
The indoor heat lulled her, and Lainey yawned hugely. "Sorry."
"No. You've got every reason to be tired," Strauss said, putting his glass down. "And still a long way to go."
"If I'm going to get any sleep, now is the time to do it." Lainey forced her feet back into damp liners and mukluks. She would definitely need to change them before catching a nap.
"Want company?" Strauss asked.
Lainey smiled at him, letting him know she understood his earlier ploy and felt no ill will. "Naw. You'll just have to turn around and come right back here."
He nodded. "We're staying here another night and flying into McGrath next."
"See you there." Lainey gathered up her outer clothing and headed out of the lodge. Her exit was met with a chorus from the people lounging around inside, wishing her luck. She waved and closed the door against the chill, feeling immensely better now that she was not overheated.
Drew Owens still drowsed on the bench. Lainey chuckled at him and stepped into the snow.
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