by D Jordan Redhawk
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Lainey smiled when she saw her team. Most of them still slept, but Kaara jumped up at her approach. Her sleeping mate, Bonaparte, barely acknowledged the loss of her warmth, rolling over and giving Lainey his back.
"Hey, sweet girl," Lainey murmured, squatting down to give the dog some undivided attention. "Did you have a nice nap?"
A couple of others shook themselves from their slumber at the sound of her voice, and she proceeded to scratch and rub anyone awake enough to want the petting. Bonaparte got to his feet but continued to ignore her. She resisted the urge to force herself upon him, not wanting him to become too mutinous. After the race was over, she planned on really pissing the mutt off for all those months of suffering his regal attitude. Grinning in anticipation, she pulled a bag of moose liver from the sled and snacked them. Even her morning sourpuss, Meshindi, gave up his grumbling when she offered him his favorite treat and Bonaparte finally deigned to acknowledge her presence.
Once everyone was awake, she doled out the dog chow from the cooler. In no time, her team enjoyed a substantial meal, wolfing their breakfast down in much the same way she had at Molly's. While they dined, she grabbed water from the checkpoint boiler to start their next meal. She sorted through her clothing, separating dirty socks, wet booties, and damp work gloves from the much smaller pile of clean and dry items. Her hostess had insisted she use her washer and dryer rather than drag everything down to the local laundromat.
When the dogs finished eating, Lainey went down the line and collected their plates. She scooped up excrement, freshened their straw beds, and swapped out wet blankets and dog coats for fresh. Regardless of Molly's insistence, Lainey intended to wash the dog stuff at the public laundromat. No reason to clog up the woman's filters with tons of dog hair.
She spent the next hour tending each dog starting with her leaders, Trace and Sholo. She petted and massaged each one, even Bonaparte, giving them bonding time with her at the same time she examined them for latent injuries. Paws were carefully examined and salve applied. Heldig received a different concoction than the others, one prepared for the express use of extra healing. It was thicker in texture and Lainey slathered it onto the abraded pads of Heldig's paws, hoping the rest and herbs would keep her on the trail longer.
When she got to Himitsu, she gave the yellow brown dog a little more loving than the rest. His usual partner on the line had been Tecumseh. With his buddy dropped, he now ran alone for the most part, and Lainey wanted him to know how much she depended on his quiet, well-mannered ways. Besides, he was one of her major trash talkers, and she rather enjoyed hearing him cuss out the other teams.
Chibee wriggled in pleasure at her approach. Being the youngest, he still held a lot of puppy like appeal and energy. Lainey appeased his adolescent urges by wrestling with him until he was on his back, and then gave him a thorough tummy scratching. He grinned at her, tongue hanging from the side of his mouth and eyes twinkling.
Further down the line, shaggy Jonah tugged on one of the disconnected tow lines with his teeth in a broad hint, his desire to get going obvious. Lainey laughed. "Not yet, big fellah. We've still got," and she looked at her watch, "about twelve hours to go before we can blow this joint." She shook her head. Twelve hours. What a wealth of time. She could get so much done in twelve hours, even a lengthy nap.
"You ready to go?"
Lainey looked at Scotch, smiling. "Yeah." She gave Jonah a final scratch before gathering up the laundry she had piled in a dog blanket. "I want to stop at the laundromat, too."
Scotch walked beside her, a bundle thrown over her shoulder. "Why? There's plenty of time for both of us to get our stuff done at Molly's." She waved distractedly at a volunteer who called her name in greeting, but continued to speak to Lainey. "You can grab another nap while I do mine."
"I don't want to mess up her machines with the dog blankets," Lainey said. "She seemed pretty proud of them." In fact, Molly was very pleased with her facilities, having just bought the washer and dryer new last summer. They were the first new appliances she had ever had, and she bragged for ten solid minutes as she offered their use to the mushers.
"Well, we can do that." Scotch shrugged. "But you'll insult her for sure. She wouldn't have extended the invitation if she didn't mean for you to use it. And she sure as hell knows what all's involved with the offer."
Lainey frowned, peering at her friend. "You sure? I really don't want to break something."
Still uncertain, Lainey agreed to give it a shot. Since Scotch was scheduled to leave a couple of hours earlier than her, she would have the first crack at the equipment. If things went well enough, Lainey figured her usage would not screw things up too much.
"Besides, it'll take more time if you do loads in two different places. Trust me, it seems like you've got forever, but the minutes and hours will race by." Scotch climbed aboard the snow machine, balancing her load in her lap.
Lainey hugged her belongings to her chest. Despite the awkwardness, the ride back to Molly's was quick and smooth. In no time she was back inside at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and watching Scotch sort through her things. Howry and Strauss were still sacked out in the living room, and Molly was nowhere to be seen, having gone back to bed.
She yawned again, hearing her jaw creak with exertion. Before she could recover, another one burst out of her. "God, I'm sorry," she finally managed.
"Go to bed. You can use the rest," Scotch said. She placed a glass of water in front of Lainey. "But drink this first. Part of the reason you're so tired is you're not getting enough fluids."
"Yeah?" Lainey asked, picking up the glass.
"Yeah. You need to drink at least six of your juice packs or Gatorades a day. Have you?"
Lainey, swallowing water, merely rolled her eyes.
"Thought so. If you don't take care of yourself --"
"You can't take care of your dogs," Lainey finished. She lifted her glass again and emptied it. "Yes, ma'am. Point taken."
When she stood, Scotch intercepted her, and held her close. "Get some sleep. I'll wake you when I'm done. Three or four hours, not much more."
Lainey's eyes slipped shut as she savored Scotch's proximity. "Okay," she whispered. She lifted her head, searching blindly for a kiss, and received the sweetest one imaginable. Lainey wanted to draw it out, make it last, not knowing when the next one would come. Someone coughed politely at the door, however, and they broke apart.
Howry leaned against the door jamb, arms crossed and an unrepentant grin on his face. His hair stuck up at an odd angle and it ruined his attempt at a knowing and devilish appearance. Lainey almost laughed aloud, but bit the inside of her cheek to control herself.
"So this is what happens on the trail," he said, his voice still rough from sleep.
"No, this is what happens in kitchens," Lainey said. "You can't imagine what happens on the trail."
Howry's grin widened and he wiggled his eyebrows. "Oh, I think I can." He pushed away from the jamb and walked over to the coffee maker which was near them. "All that snow and ice. A girl's got to keep warm, right?"
Scotch hugged Lainey closer, but leaned slightly toward Howry. Her voice lowered so no one else could possibly overhear. "And I do a remarkable job."
Lainey snickered. "I can attest to that."
He barked a laugh, taking a cup from the dish drainer. "I'll just bet!" He poured his coffee, and held it to his nose, inhaling deeply of its aroma. "So, what are your plans today, ladies? Other than the obvious." He nodded his chin at their embrace.
"She is going to bed."
Howry's eyes sparkled, and he plastered a mock innocent expression on his face. "Do tell?"
Lainey laughed. "And she is going to do laundry."
He shook his head and tsked at them. "That's certainly not how to keep Lainey warm," he said to Scotch conversationally. "If you'd like, I have some pointers you can use. Not that I've had the fortunate experience with her myself, but I've heard some stories." He winked lewdly. "I know exactly what trips her trigger."
"Really?" Scotch said, intrigue in her tone.
Lainey's mouth hung open in horror. "You wouldn't."
"Don," she growled, moving away from Scotch to glare at him.
"Si, mi amiga?"
"Someday, you'll find the woman of your dreams. And when you do, I'm going to be there to tell her all about that Egyptian villager you 'liberated' from her husband."
He blinked at her, his expression unreadable. "You wouldn't."
It was Lainey's turn to smile. "Or maybe that little chica in Rio. What was her name? Consuelo?"
"Well, Scotch," he said without missing a beat. "You might not know this, but I have extensive experience with a variety of laundry soaps. Perhaps we can talk about liquid softeners versus those ugly dryer sheets instead."
Scotch laughed. "That'll be fine."
Smug, Lainey tweaked Howry's bearded chin and turned away. She got another kiss from Scotch before sauntering out of the kitchen.
The nap did her good. Or maybe it was the water. In either case, when Scotch gently woke her, Lainey felt refreshed for the first time in days.
She tucked Scotch in for her nap and left the bedroom with great reluctance. She might not be wiped any more, but that did not lessen the desire to simply spend time cuddling with her friend. Regretful, Lainey forced herself to focus on her errands. Only seven hours to go before she was back on the trail.
By now everyone was awake. Strauss and Howry chatted on the couch with a small native man. Lainey's sluggish memory provided a name - Hank, Molly's husband. Rye and Irish were eating brunch in the kitchen, their mother frying them eggs, and Molly carefully folded Scotch's laundry.
Despite having had a huge breakfast, Lainey's stomach rumbled loud enough to be heard. Helen peered at her, and added another pan to the stove. "Get your laundry started and grab a plate."
"Thanks, Helen," Lainey said, grinning.
Four hours later, the last of her items tumbling in the dryer, her stomach obscenely full of her second breakfast, Lainey eased back into the bedroom with a cup of fresh coffee. She set it on the nightstand and slipped under the blankets. With gentle strokes, she woke Scotch, enjoying the sleepy warmth under her palms. It took great restraint to not escalate things as the woman beside her moaned and stretched in appreciation. Scotch had no more time to dally. She needed to get some lunch into her and back out to her dogs.
"Come on, sexy. Time to get up."
"Mmmm. I'm up," Scotch mumbled, her eyes still closed.
"Liar." Lainey eased her hand along Scotch's torso, fingers lightly pressing along her ribs.
Scotch jerked her eyes open. "No tickling!"
"Are you going to get up?"
Lainey grinned. She dug into Scotch's ribs once, and was nearly bucked off by the exuberant response before she released her.
"That was mean." Scotch pouted, half sitting up in the bed.
"You'll thank me, later. It's after two and you need to eat before going."
Scotch rubbed her face and stared at the alarm clock. "Yeah, you're right." She yawned and scratched her head. "Is that coffee?"
"Yup." Lainey leaned across her to retrieve the cup. She froze as Scotch caressed her back and rear. "This isn't getting out of bed." Her heart thumped in her chest as the hand eased down her thigh.
"Maybe not, but it's certainly waking me up."
Lainey chuckled and forced herself away from Scotch's touch, handing her the coffee. "Me, too. And I didn't need waking up, thank you."
Scotch sipped from her cup. "That's a matter of opinion."
Amused, Lainey shook her head and got out of bed. "Come on, Fuller. You have a race to win. A little slap and tickle will interrupt your rest / run schedule too much."
"Yes, ma'am," Scotch said, mournfully.
"Molly said to tell you she has a bowl of ham and beans waiting for you in the kitchen."
Scotch's countenance cleared up, and she licked her lips. "Well, why didn't you say so? Let's get going."
As much as Lainey wanted to see Scotch off, she had her own chores to complete. Howry drove Scotch to the checkpoint, leaving Lainey to wave after them as they departed. Her last sight of Scotch had been the woman's profile as they turned off the street and went around a corner. Chances were good that they would only see each other for an hour or two over the next few checkpoints. Scotch would then be running too far ahead of Lainey to catch.
Lainey spent the next hour at Molly's getting the last of her things together and the laundry finished. Over her misgivings, Molly insisted on stuffing her washer to the brim with dog coats, and Lainey had to admit that the new appliance was up to the sturdy task for which it had been drafted. Strauss sat at the kitchen table, officially interviewing her for the Cognizance article as she worked, accompanied by Molly's husband who added his own mushing wisdom to the discussion. Then Molly insisted on grilling up cheese and tuna sandwiches for a quick lunch, wrapping several in tin foil and pushing them into Lainey's already laden arms as she headed out the door.
"Thank you so much for putting me up," Lainey said as she climbed onto the snow machine, clutching her bundle of gear and food.
Molly smiled. "You just get to Nome, honey. That'll be thanks enough. I'll be listening to the reports." She remained on her porch, a shawl wrapped around her house dress and mukluks on her feet, hardly noticing the two degree temperature. She waved as Strauss drove the snow machine out of the yard.
At the checkpoint, Lainey climbed off the snow machine. "Will I see you again?" she asked.
"Yeah. Don and I have been talking about flying into Ruby and then Unalakleet, weather permitting."
"Great! I'll see you then." She turned away.
She looked over her shoulder at him.
"Take it easy, okay? I don't want to lose my star photo journalist to an avalanche or something."
Lainey grinned at him. "The worst is over, Ben. It might not all be smooth sailing to Nome, but it's way better than what I've already been through."
"I'm just saying."
She grinned and returned to him, bussing his scruffy cheek. "Thanks. I will." They said their good byes and she watched him go before trudging toward her sled.
The dogs were eager to see her, all of them awake and bright eyed. She walked through them, talking to and petting them for a few moments. Then she grabbed a dog harness and headed over to the drop point to pick up her new sled. It looked the same as the one she currently had, though with less wear and tear on it. She hooked the harness to the sled and put her arm through one of the loops, dragging the new vehicle back to her parking area.
As the team ate their lunch, she transferred everything, sled bag and all, from one sled to the other, carefully making certain to center the weight of the load this time. She did not want a repeat of her last crash. Soon the sled was packed to the ribs with the gear she carried in and the food drop she had distributed among her belongings. She placed the mandatory items and promotional packet in an easily accessible spot, grabbed the child's sled, and left again for another water run.
With dog chow steeping in one cooler and too many Gatorade packets thawing in the other, she checked her watch. Damn, she only had twenty-five minutes. Where did the time go? It seemed like an hour ago she was marveling at having twelve solid hours of time to work with. Lainey ruefully shook her head.
She connected her old sled to the back of her new one rather than manually drag it back to the drop point. Then she went down the line of frisky and eager dogs, cleaning up their mess and booting their feet. Their excitement ratcheted up another level as she worked; they recognized the signs that they were getting back on the trail, and frolicked accordingly.
As impatient as her team was, Lainey knew better than to simply mush them toward the checkpoint. Just her luck, they would take off out of town and force her to turn them around so she could properly check out. Instead, she hooked a harness to the tug line in front of Sholo and Trace and led the team herself.
Leaving the parking area, she waved at Roman Spencer who was in the final stages of leaving himself. Despite coming into McGrath behind her, he was leaving before she was. A musher's twenty-four hour break was where the Iditarod committee evened out the playing field. Lainey's break had in actuality lasted twenty-five plus hours because she had left Anchorage well over an hour and a half before the last musher. The only people staying longer on their twenty-four were the second and third mushers out of the gate. When all the mushers had taken their twenty-four, her standings would reflect her true position in the race.
Lainey guided her team to the drop point where she unhooked the old sled, labeled for shipment back to the kennel, and dumped her trash and extra dog food. By the time she arrived at the checkpoint, she had three minutes to wait. Roman had already gone, and her dogs picked up his team's scent, barking and surging forward in an attempt to catch them. A couple of volunteers stepped forward to hold them back, laughing at their anticipation.
"Looks like you've got a hell of a team," the checker said, handing her his clipboard to sign out.
"I certainly do," Lainey said with a contented smile.
"You're due to depart at seven fifty-eight," he said. He counted the time on his watch. "Which would be . . . five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . now."
"Ready!" Lainey called, warning the volunteers and getting her dogs' attention. "Let's go!"
The team took off at a full lope, rushing forward in an attempt to catch up with Roman's team.
The trip to Takotna was as easy one, less that twenty miles. Lainey's dogs took the trail down to the river smoothly. Less than a mile later, they climbed up the left bank and headed across frozen swamps and scattered tree lines. The trail was solid and well-marked, with just enough fresh snow to make it interesting. Roman's tracks were easily visible and her dogs enthusiastic from their long break.
Lainey was glad for the weather. The sun had set, and the air was crisp with cold. She snugged her hood closer to compensate, her head lamp illuminating wagging dog tails. With the team burning off their excess energy, anything warmer would have been disastrous for them. As it was, they availed themselves of the fresh snow, biting at it as they ran to quench their thirst.
The ground rose at a gentle angle as they mushed along. Soon the ascent became a bit more extreme, though nowhere near as drastic as previous climbs had been. Still, Lainey jumped off the runners to give the dogs less weight to pull. Besides, running helped keep her warm, as well. At the top, they ran along a forested ridge for a few miles before the trail veered to the right and down the side.
As they came off the ridge and onto the river, she saw Roman perhaps a quarter mile ahead of her. Her team did, as well, and Chibee yipped in glee. The dogs surged forward, and she gave them their heads. By the end of this run / rest leg, they would burn off the extra get up and go. Until then, it would not hurt to allow them a little more exercise.
She heard barking ahead as her team neared his, Roman's trash talkers beginning to swear at the approaching competition. Montana answered back, echoed by Chibee and the normally quiet Himitsu. Lainey snorted as Montana somehow made his run more of a swagger, an arrogant gait apparently designed to show off his lowly opinion of the dogs they neared.
Roman's team put on a burst of speed, and Lainey grinned. So that was the way he wanted to play it, huh? "Let's go!" she called to her dogs.
She chased him down the river and up an embankment. Suddenly they were on a street, and she saw markers indicating the next checkpoint. "Whoa!" she ordered, standing on the drag mat between her runners. As much as she wanted to pass Roman, a five second lead meant nothing at this stage of the game. Her team was adamant, however, and would not stop until they bypassed Roman stopped at the checkpoint.
Lainey laughed as volunteers jumped forward to stop the dogs. She shed her gloves and officially signed in.
"Nope. Just came off our twenty-four in McGrath," she said, reaching into her sled bag to snack her dogs. Roman had opted to blow through, and he waved at her with a grin as he pulled out of Takotna.
The checker nodded. "There's a steak dinner in it if you stay."
"Really?" Lainey returned the bag to her sled and grabbed booties and ointment. "I ate a pretty hefty dinner when I left McGrath."
He shrugged. "Oh, well. The villagers like to roll out the red carpet. A few of the mushers take their big break here for the steak dinner."
Finished with her chore, she repacked her gear and climbed aboard the runners. "If I do this again, you can bet I'll stay here on my twenty-four," she said. She put on her head lamp for the impending darkness and signed out at nine thirty PM.
"If I do this again," she muttered to herself, amused. "What the hell am I thinking?"
This stretch of trail was literally on a road, another easy section since the road appeared to be maintained during the summer months. For the next eight or nine miles, she played tag with Roman as they both climbed gradual inclines. Eventually their dogs settled into a rhythm with less yelling at one another. It appeared she and Roman were evenly matched, and Lainey started considering serious strategies to beat him to Nome.
They left the road, sweeping up to the right and overland for a bit. Then they dropped back onto it, now heading downhill. In some areas, it seemed the trail was more ice. Lainey concentrated her head lamp to see sheets of ice that had frozen across the road from creeks alongside. Once or twice, the trail avoided the ice altogether by slipping into a ditch on the other side. Where bridges were built to span the water, the path sometimes led off the road and past them rather than going across.
Roman Spencer pulled off the trail, and Lainey slowed to pass him. "You okay?" she asked.
"Yeah. I'm just going to snack the dogs," he called back. "I'll catch up."
Lainey nodded and urged her team forward. Despite being in the lead, she wondered if there was something ahead that she did not know about, but he did. She frowned as her sled whipped along the road at an easy pace, trying to remember anything from the trail reports she had received. Nothing came to mind, and she finally decided he truly only wanted to give his dogs a break rather than trick her into an unenviable position.
She crossed several different creeks now, some with signs and some without, and followed the Innoko River for a spell. Her light picked up dark structures to the side of the road, evidence of old mining camps and cabins. Then a sign loomed closer. 'State Maintenance Ends.' That meant the checkpoint was coming up fast.
In the distance she saw lantern light, a warm glow shining from a cabin window. She smiled as she neared. The place looked like a Christmas card, with snow on the roof and the yellow light emanating from within, promising a grand welcome home to the weary traveler.
Barking dogs behind her broke her concentration and she glanced back to see Roman's head lamp closing in. Lainey laughed aloud and told her team to hurry along.
They pulled into the Ophir checkpoint a little after midnight, a full minute and a half before Roman Spencer. It was time for another rest.
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