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It was the wee hours of the morning when Lainey pulled to a stop beside the log community center. The check in procedure was quick and painless, though one of the volunteers wondered aloud why she had a straw bale with her.
"Weight training," she said. She was glad the skin of her face was chapped from the weather. At least her blush would not be readily apparent. "Is Scotch Fuller here?"
The checker, an amused expression on his face, looked over his clipboard. "Yeah, she is. She'll probably be getting ready to leave soon, though." "Thanks."
Lainey directed her dogs to the parking area and got them fed and bedded down on the straw from Cripple. After the longer run on this stretch, she planned on taking a full eight hour break here. There were two mandatory eight hour breaks; the next one would be on the other side of the Yukon at White Mountain. She had not planned on taking her mandatory here, though, so she had not notified the checker of her intent to stay a little longer than usual.
Her team comfortable, she grabbed up wet dog booties and gear and headed to the community center. Hopefully there would be someplace to dry at least some of this stuff before she had to head out.
Inside, her sinuses promptly clogged from the change of temperature, but not before she caught a whiff of delicious moose stew.
"Hey, hey! The prodigal rookie arrives!"
Lainey grinned and waved at Howry, but it was the sight of Scotch sitting beside him that caused her heart to beat a little faster.
Strauss was returning to the table with a cup of coffee and stopped to give her a one armed hug. "You can put your stuff in the back there," he said, nodding toward a mass of makeshift laundry lines dangling over a large stove, "and grab a bowl of stew and join us."
"Yes, boss," she said.
He chuckled. "Wow! You must be exhausted to be calling me 'boss'."
Lainey stuck her tongue out at him and slipped from under his arm.
After arranging her stuff to dry and getting food, she finally sank into the chair beside Scotch. She took the time to kick off her boots and liners, giving her feet a chance to air out, before applying herself to the stew.
"So, how's it going?" Strauss asked. "Any problems out there?"
"Not really. Bare ground is a bitch, but my runners are in better condition than I thought they'd be. I'm not so sure about Roman Spencer, though."
Scotch frowned at her. "Why?"
"Well, he was right behind me, but after we got out of the timber and onto the bald patches, I lost him." She looked at the door as it opened, but it was one of the veterinarians. "I took a pretty extensive stop to go over the sled. By all rights, he should have passed me and been here by now."
"Maybe he cracked his sled?" Howry suggested.
"Or his dogs balked," another musher said from further down the table. "I've had a team quit on me when the wind got too bad."
"It's possible." Scotch nursed her coffee. "How are the dogs?"
"Good." Lainey was surprised to realize her bowl was empty. She had not expected to be that hungry. "I might leave Heldig here, though. She's been tiptoeing through the snow too much and it's messing with her paws."
Scotch nodded. "Yeah, that sounds like Heldig. Has Bonaparte been giving you any trouble?"
"Nope. Not a lick."
A slight grin crossed Scotch's face. "Well, there's still time."
Lainey pursed her lips and raised her chin. "You know, just because he's given you trouble on the trail doesn't mean he'll do the same for me."
"Ah, yes. I remember how well he performed for you last month."
She frowned at the reminder. Bonaparte had decided it was time for a snack break during a training run. At the time, he had simply sat down between one step and the next, allowing the team to drag him a few feet before Lainey could halt them. She had been horrified at the sight of his limp body plowing through the snow, positive he had been killed in some freak accident. Closer examination showed him to be hale, healthy and alive, but he refused to run another step. Nothing Lainey did could force him to budge and she finally resorted to loading him into the sled to be towed home. Only upon her arrival, fearfully handing him over to Helen for an exam, did she discover that it was a regular trick of his when His Majesty decided he had run enough for one day.
Scotch grinned at her and Lainey smacked her on the leg with a scowl. If anything, Scotch's grin widened and she checked her watch. "It's about time for me to get ready."
As Scotch rose, Lainey did as well. "I'll walk with you. It's too warm in here." She pulled her boots back on and donned her parka while Scotch did the same. Soon they were back outdoors, and she sighed in relief. Who would have imagined she would be more comfortable in five degrees than a warm community center?
"This'll probably be the last time I see you before Nome," Scotch said as they crunched over snow.
"I know. I guess I'll just have to run a little faster to shorten the distance."
Scotch chuckled. "Yeah. You do that."
"There was something I wanted to ask you about the dogs." At Scotch's nod, Lainey said, "Roman said he was feeding his team three quarters of a pound of fat now and suggested I do the same. Is that something I should do?"
"Yeah, you can do that without harming them. As cold as it is this year, it might be beneficial over all. They'll burn it off keeping warm."
"Okay. I just wanted to double check before changing their diet."
"You didn't pack any extra in your food drops, did you?"
Lainey shook her head. "Nope. I hadn't planned on it. I took your list and cut down the amount you take for yourself, so I don't even have that."
"Well, the next checkpoint is Galena. They have a cafe there. If it's open when you arrive, you might be able to buy something from them. A few checkpoints after that is Unalakleet with a couple of stores."
"Yeah, I'll check into them when I get there." Lainey looked over the parking area as they got to Scotch's team. A few mushers were curled on their sleds or with their dogs. It looked like two more had arrived while she was inside, and they were in the final stages of settling their dogs. Neither of them were Roman. What had happened to him?
Scotch brought her back to the here and now by pulling her into an embrace. "Remember, it'll be easy running for the next few legs until you reach the coast. After that, be careful."
"Only if you'll be careful, too," Lainey said, snuggling close. "I have big plans for you in Nome."
"And I have plans for you," Scotch agreed. Her voice was rough from the weather, but the huskiness in her tone struck a chord in Lainey's heart.
With reluctance, Lainey released Scotch and stepped back. "Happy trails."
"Same to you."
Lainey dawdled for a bit, watching Scotch wake her dogs and prepare them for the trail. A yawn big enough to drop the Grand Canyon into reminded her she needed to sleep, and she regretfully shuffled away to her team. On her way there, she saw that Roman had finally arrived. He looked none the worse for wear, but he had his sled on its side and closely examined the runners. It looked like the bare gravel had done quite a number on them.
She yawned again as she reached her team. The dogs were all nestled in straw, bright green and yellow blankets draped over their motionless forms. Lainey walked down the line to check them and returned to her sled, satisfied. As she pulled out her sleeping bag, she looked up to wave at Scotch leaving the parking area.
Lainey doubted she would see Scotch again until she arrived in Nome, and she sighed. Best to not think about it. With any luck, she could get a good five hours sleep this morning. She climbed into her sleeping bag and got comfortable. In no time, she was fast asleep.
The trail followed the road out of town, but at the bottom of a hill took a right turn. From there, it dropped onto the Yukon river, a mile wide expanse of snow and ice. With all that room to maneuver, the trail breakers had made the way a straight shot as far as she could see.
She yawned. Her dogs trotted happily along, tails wagging. She was down to fourteen now, a decent showing for as many miles as they had traveled. Heldig remained at Ruby as a dropped dog, her paws too abraded to continue without causing further damage. She had barked and pulled on her chain as they left the checkpoint, wanting to stay with them. Because she had no other injuries, Lainey felt bad about leaving her.
Lainey drank a juice pack, her mood worsening in direct contrast to the rising sun.
She was tired, cranky, still stiff and sore from her tumble a couple of days earlier. Her rib ached from cold, exertion, and sleeping in contorted positions on her sled. She felt grimy and knew she stank something fierce, regardless of the shower she had been able to catch in McGrath. Ugh.
Who was she fooling, anyway? Sure, she was already past the halfway mark, but she still had over four hundred miles to go before reaching the finish line. What was the point? All this for a stupid magazine article? Strauss had not paid her nearly enough for this abuse.
Maybe she should scratch at Galena. Just pull in and end her race there. There had already been other mushers who had scratched; she would not be the one in the ignominious position of the first to bail out of the race. Lots of rookies never made it to the finish line. Hell, lots of mushers tried every year and never made it to Nome. What made her so special? She had plenty of material for her article, and hundreds of photographs. Would it really be so bad to pull the plug now?
The miles cranked slowly by, and Lainey removed her head lamp in favor of her sunglasses. Overhead cloud cover obscured the direct light of the sun, but it was still bright out. Her team trundled along with little direction, but she took care to keep an eye for trail markers. It was best not to get too complacent and end up in Fairbanks by mistake.
God, the trail just kept going and going. She still had a good four hundred miles of it, too. She imagined flying into Nome and being at the finish line to see Scotch's arrival. Lainey smiled to herself, knowing that after a decent nap and shower, she would have Scotch all to herself. Finally! While the resulting lascivious daydreams were fun, her mind insisted on following its depressing line.
What would happen when it was over? The Iditarod finished for another year, the Cognizance article filed and published . . . What then? Another job, another article, more travel, that was what. Lainey had to go where the money was. That was the joy and the curse of free lance work. Strauss would possibly have an idea for an article, or Lainey could check in on a number of other magazines to find something interesting to pick up or pitch. Off she would go to grab photos of exotic wildlife far from here.
Lainey had no illusions that Scotch would join her. The dogs were Scotch's life. Alaska was Scotch's life.
Where did that leave their relationship then?
Grumbling to herself, Lainey stopped the dogs to snack them. They all had healthy positive attitudes, and she did not know if she should snarl at them or let them jolly her out of her rapidly plummeting mood. Chibee wriggled and licked her face as she checked him, his breath foul with the frozen white fish he just finished gulping down. Unable to help herself, Lainey laughed, and her grinned at her, pleased.
"Thanks, boy. Nothing like a doggie kiss to wake me up to reality."
Whatever she decided between here and Nome, she would survive. Scotch would survive. They were both tough and confident, able to handle anything the world sent against them. If they were destined to be together, fine. If not, at least it had been a wonderful and entertaining year.
She finished checking the dogs and climbed onto her sled. "Let's go!"
Lainey arrived at the Galena checkpoint at nine fifty-seven on Saturday morning. She had been on the trail for a full eight days. Running on automatic, she parked the team, fed and watered them, and settled them for their nap. She completed the entire process in less than an hour. Earlier in the race she would have been impressed with her increased efficiency. Her mind was numb from lack of sleep and boredom, however, alternating between morose thoughts about Scotch and the waking dreams of the sleep deprived. Fortunately, the team had not been too affected by her temperament. They frisked a bit before settling into their straw beds for some much needed sleep.
Once they were cared for, Lainey got her child sled out and found her food drops. She lugged them back to the sled, but did not bother to open and sort through them. There was something a bit more important she had to take care of, and the sooner she did, the sooner she could join the dogs in slumber.
As in Ruby, the Galena checkpoint was the village community center. Lainey stepped inside with an armload of gear. She was in luck and located room to hang the things to dry. Once that was done she cornered one of the volunteers, a thin native woman.
"Hey, is the cafe open yet?"
The volunteer smiled. "It should be. But there's lots of food here to choose from. And our moose stew is the best in the Yukon."
Lainey tried to inhale through stuffed sinuses, but could not smell a thing. A buffet sat along one wall, laden with food - even a full roast turkey that had been picked nearly clean by now. "I don't doubt that," she said, grinning. "But I'm looking to buy cooking oil or butter for my dogs. At least enough to get me to Unalakleet." She chuckled to herself. Man, that sounded odd. Never in her wildest imaginations had she thought she would ever ask for lard for dogs.
Despite the strange request the woman, who introduced herself as Suzy, did not bat an eye. Instead, she scooped up her parka and put it on. "I'll take you. I've got a snow machine right outside."
Lainey blinked. "Oh, You don't have to do --"
"Don't be silly! You've been on the trail for days and need your rest as much as your dogs do. The sooner we get this done, the sooner you get food and sleep."
Lainey was hustled out the door and onto a snow machine. Moments later, tired amusement on her face, she was ushered into a tiny cafe. Four booths lined the wall to the left, and a breakfast counter stood to the right. A double swinging door led back to the kitchen, and she saw a cook through the serving window behind the counter, leaning on one hip and reading a book. The air smelled of bacon and eggs and coffee.
"Wait here." Suzy waved her to a stool at the counter, and disappeared, presumably into the kitchen.
Bemused, Lainey sat and glanced around at the other occupants. A young couple sat at one of the booths, both nodding greeting to her which she returned. Lounging at the counter a few seats down, a grizzled old man returned her stare.
"Musher?" he asked before she became embarrassed at her rudeness.
He sucked his teeth and looked her over. "Rookie, huh?"
Lainey grinned. "Is it obvious?" she asked, looking down at herself for a sign. Maybe it was hanging above her head, blinking in garish neon.
The man chuckled. "Sometimes. I seen them all come every year, ever since the first one through here. Haven't seen you before. I'd remember."
She laughed. "Yeah, this is my first Iditarod."
"Suzy said you needed cooking oil or something?"
Lainey turned to the waitress, another native woman, that had appeared from the back with Suzy at her side. "Yes. It's been colder than I expected, and I wondered if you had any oil or butter to spare that I could buy. I need to increase the dogs' fat intake." She felt a wave of absurdity as the words came out of her mouth. The thought of walking into a restaurant in Queens and asking the same thing almost caused a snort, but she fought it down.
The waitress took it in stride, which made the entire situation even more absurd in Lainey's eyes. "I think we could help. I could give you two pounds of butter and a gallon of cooking oil."
"Really? That would be great. How much do you want for it?" She reached under her parka in search of an inner pocket where she kept her money.
The waitress dithered a bit, looking at the other patrons with a frown as she figured out monetary values. She finally quoted a price that was well below what Lainey had expected. The village was literally in the middle of the wilderness, and everything had to be trucked in through fair weather and foul. That made costs she took for granted in the lower states double or even triple in some places up here.
She was certain arguing the point would only insult the woman, so Lainey paid what was asked and the waitress went back into the kitchen area to get the goods. As soon as she was out of sight, Lainey folded a twenty dollar bill in half and slipped it under a sugar container with the corner peeking out. She blushed as she realized both the old man's and Suzy's sharp eyes had seen her furtive movement. He nodded, a smile on his face, and sipped his coffee. Suzy acted like nothing had happened.
"Here you go," the waitress said. "Would you like any coffee or anything? I've a fresh pot. We could whip you up a great breakfast, too."
Lainey took the brown paper bag and stood. "I'd love to, but I've only got a few hours of sleep before I head out. Thank you so much for this. You're a life saver."
The waitress reddened and smiled. She brushed at her apron, but appeared pleased. "You're welcome. Maybe some time you can come back for a good meal."
"I'd like that."
"What's your name?" the old man asked as Lainey edged toward the door with Suzy.
"Good luck, Lainey Hughes," he said, lifting his cup in salute.
The others in the cafe murmured the same, and Lainey thanked them before stepping outside.
Soon she was back at her sled, stomach full from a meal of moose stew and fresh buttered rolls. Her team slept on, and she joined them. She was unconscious before her head hit the rolled up clothing she used as a pillow.
Next time? Where did that come from? Lainey snorted and shook her head, stepping inside the community center.
The faces of the mushers had changed, new ones having come in the afternoon while she slept, others having left. Roman Spencer was there, looking groggy as he spooned stew into his mouth. Lainey was pleased to see him, wandering if he had just arrived and planned to stay long. It looked like she might have evaded him for the rest of the race. She could only hope.
Lainey went to the drying racks and scooped up her things. Most everything was dry, though the boot liners were still slightly damp. Ruefully, she wondered if there would be a place in Kaltag to dry things. That was her next layover. She could really use those liners before reaching Unalakleet. She fumbled for her notebook and checked her food drop inventory for Kaltag. At least she had two pairs of liners in that drop, just in case.
She turned to see the woman who had taken her to the cafe, Suzy. "Hey, how are you holding up?" she asked with a grin, putting away her notebook and juggling her belongings.
"Better than you guys are," Suzy said, indicating the unshaven and exhausted looking mushers peppering the center. "While you were asleep there were a few deliveries for you. I've got them right over here."
Puzzled, Lainey followed her to where the volunteers had set up their office, a row of tables covered in paperwork, radios, and all manner of odds and ends. "Deliveries? I didn't ask for anything to be delivered here. Other than my food drops, anyway." She looked at the large chalkboard on the wall, Searching for Scotch's name. It looked like she would be leaving the Kaltag checkpoint in the next couple of hours. Roman had only just arrived, giving Lainey the potential for another five or six hour lead.
"Well, old Harris spread the word after we left the cafe this morning." Suzy pulled a large cardboard box out from under a table and hefted it on top.
"Harris?" Lainey lifted the flap of the box and blinked at the contents. A lump swelled in her throat, making swallowing difficult.
"Yeah, the man at the counter. He let some folks know about your need. We've had five or six people show up to give you these."
Lainey pulled a plastic gallon jug of cooking oil from inside the box. There was another one just like it as well as several sticks of butter and margarine of different brands, obviously from someone's home refrigerator. A large plastic bag held chunks of meaty bones, still mostly frozen - enough for sixteen dogs. In a smaller paper sack, there was a canning jar filled with a thick yellow fluid. "What's this?"
Suzy whistled. "That's seal oil. It has a very high fat content. That was probably meant for you rather than the dogs. You can either drink it straight or dip bread or something into it. Ever have it before?"
"No." Lainey did not know whether to laugh or cry. Unable to make the emotional decision, she smiled as tears stung her eyes.
"Well, if you like fish, you should like this. It's got a fishy aftertaste, anyway."
Sniffling, Lainey found cards from a couple of children and seven notes from well-wishers. "Harris, you said?"
"Yep, Harris," Suzy agreed. She poked through the cards and messages. "Everybody who brought something left a note for you."
Lainey read each one. The children had drawn crude pictures of a sled and dogs. One even showed her bright yellow sled bag, so the kid had to have seen her while she was napping. The others were scribbled messages of good trails and encouragement to reach the finish line.
She made certain she had the names of the people involved, asking Suzy to translate those signatures she could not read. Though it took time, Lainey would not leave until she had written thank you notes to everyone involved, including Harris and the waitress at the cafe. When she finished, she gave them to Suzy who promised to deliver them.
Before Lainey could leave, Suzy pulled her over to the buffet table, and insisted she grab a snack to take with her. She chuckled as the volunteer buttered four rolls and wrapped them in tin foil for the trail.
Still a bit weepy, Lainey took the box - now piled with donations, rolls, and her dry gear - out to her sled. It was a little after three in the afternoon and the sky was darkening. Her six hour break would be finished soon. Still, she stopped and gazed at the village around her, memorizing its appearance. She even dug out her camera and took a few photos, more for her than any magazine article. What an amazing group of people here in Galena, Alaska.
She put away her camera and forced herself back to the business of dog sledding. Firing up the cookers, she moved down the line to rouse her dogs. The lump was still in her throat, but she forced it down.
Whatever could she do to repay the village of Galena?
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