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The unnamed rookie decided to weather his break inside the armory rather than in the elements. While he slumped at a table, head on his arms, Lainey yawned and made a production of going out to her sled for some shut eye. Her ruse did not work completely, however. Once she began the process of waking her dogs and cooking a quick meal for all of them, another musher appeared from the checkpoint building. The woman grinned and winked at her before beginning her own chores. Lainey sighed. At least the rookie had not gotten suspicious.
By the time everything was ready to go, the veteran musher had already left. Regardless, Lainey kept a close eye on the front door of the armory, half expecting the rookie to come bursting out as she signed the check out sheet. He did not, and she urged her dogs to get a move on. They obliged, hardly showing the effects of their twelve hour run not so long ago. Still, it was not until Shaktoolik was out of sight that Lainey breathed a sigh of relief at avoiding her competition.
As Scotch had said, the trail was easy. It was too easy. It shot straight as an arrow with little variation of scenery. Flat, bland, and boring, the only excitement was the occasional swell of ice that roughened the ride. Even the blowing wind did little to make things interesting. Lainey saw the veteran about a mile ahead, but knew better than to try to catch up. She still had two hundred miles to go. Instead, she followed Scotch's suggestion and put her ear plugs in, listening to music as her team ate up the miles.
Distances were deceiving, as was the wind on her face. The two combined made her feel as if they sped along at a good clip of fifteen or twenty miles an hour, an impossibility for her team which had been clocked at fourteen on a short sprint and an excellent day back at the kennels. They could not maintain that pace for as long as this. The view rarely changed, giving lie to the sensation of speed. It seemed that they ran, ran, ran on a huge hamster wheel - no matter how long or hard the dogs trotted, nothing changed.
Lainey pulled out her letters frequently, especially the first one, to keep her spirits up.
The sun went down, and she stopped to snack the dogs and check them over. Everyone appeared strong and vigorous and she gave them each an extra chunk of moose liver for their efforts. Then she put on her head lamp and changed the battery pack on her iPod.
She rode on sea ice, fairly far from shore. Before she turned the music back on, she heard a deep loud crack somewhere to her left and yanked the plugs from her ears. Lainey jumped and stared, suddenly wondering if she was too far out. She had been vigilant so far, always finding the next trail marker. The dogs glanced at the sound, but did not seem anxious. The trail breakers would not send them too far out onto the sea, would they? Had it been warm enough for the threat of melting to be serious? She seemed to recall a book she read on the first woman winner of the Iditarod, something about the sea ice breaking and sending the trail marker several hundred feet out to sea. The ice had then reformed, and her team had lead her straight out to sea to get to that marker.
"You know what you're doing?" she asked Trace.
He glanced back at her as if to say, "Well, duh. I am the one with the experience here."
Lainey decided to leave the iPod off for the time being.
Several times through the course of the evening, she heard the ice cracking, but nothing indicated any danger to her team. Eventually, she turned the music back on and ignored the sounds, though it was difficult. Her ears strained to listen beyond the tunes and she whispered along with the lyrics in a further effort to distract herself.
After what seemed like a full night of mushing, she saw lights ahead and felt a thrill of relief. Finally. Her initial pleasure dampened as the lights sat off in the distance forever, a shining beacon that they were almost to their destination but never seemed to come closer. It was another hour or more before she actually arrived at the checkpoint.
"That sucked," she told the volunteer.
He chuckled. "Yeah, we hear that a lot. Almost makes you wish you were back at the Burn?"
The race officials had rented a building nearby for mushers and volunteers to rest in, but it was a couple of blocks from where the dogs were parked. As she fed and watered her team, she considered her options. While it would be nice to dry some of her gear, providing there was room, she could lose whatever edge she had cultivated. Anyone staying in the building would know when she left to prepare for departure. At least if she slept with the dogs she had a shot at sneaking out when no one was looking.
Decided, she devoured her dinner.
"This is for you," the volunteer, a young woman this time, said.
Lainey smiled, taking the envelope. Scotch's handwriting was on it and Lainey
tucked it into her pocket. "Thanks."
She signed the clipboard and headed out of Koyuk at three in the morning. Keeping
tabs on the trail ahead, she quickly opened the envelope.
Six hours later, Lainey was at the checkpoint with her team, ready to go. She had seen the rookie she had ditched in Shaktoolik snoozing a couple of sleds over, and grinned to herself. He had yet to wake when she pulled out of the parking area. This guy was good, but Roman Spencer had been harder to trick. She wondered how he was doing and vowed to check his statistics at the next checkpoint.
"This is for you," the volunteer, a young woman this time, said.
Lainey smiled, taking the envelope. Scotch's handwriting was on it and Lainey tucked it into her pocket. "Thanks."
She signed the clipboard and headed out of Koyuk at three in the morning. Keeping tabs on the trail ahead, she quickly opened the envelope.
Forty-eight more miles down, forty-eight to go to the next checkpoint. You've mushed for over nine hundred miles! You have less than two hundred to go!
When you get to Nome, I'll introduce you to a friend of mine. Her name's Beth. She and her girlfriend have offered us their spare room while we're in town. They live on the outskirts of Nome. Lots of hot water for showering and clean clothes, privacy, a large fluffy bed to catch up on your rest. And Beth is a fantastic cook.
You'd better not take too long or I'll use up all the hot water.
Soon the boredom set in as they continued along sea ice. It was ten miles or more before the trail cut inland and across low ground. She felt a modicum of relief with the knowledge that those forlorn sounding cracks from the ice would no longer indicate a perceived danger to her.
The trail began climbing a series of small hills and ridges, working its way back into a stand of trees. The added protection from the wind cut the chill. Lainey had been in the frozen breeze for hours and it felt almost balmy. This was hardly the tropical gig she had planned on getting from Strauss all those months ago.
At the final height of the last summit, she saw a red light in the distance. Switching on her head lamp, she dug out her trail notes to see if anything was mentioned there. It was a radio beacon at Moses Point, about twenty miles away from her. She wondered if she would get closer to it before Elim or if the trail would turn away.
Putting her notes away, she checked her watch as they headed back into a valley. Two hours had passed. Conceivably, she was nearing the halfway point of this stretch. Her dogs looked healthy and strong as they loped down the trail. Originally she had planned to take another six hour break at Elim, but she began to wonder if she could push through to Golovin instead, only another twenty-six miles beyond. She took her notes back out to study.
The wind picked up some more as they descended, becoming more fierce than when she had started. Weather reports had not indicated gusts of this strength. She realized they ran into a small river valley and that it was a natural wind tunnel. The trail ahead was blown out in some places, and her dogs began to slow as they forged their way through.
Her visibility was still good, regardless of the wind plucking at her parka and gear. It was strong enough in some places that she felt the sled shudder, the wind coming from her right rather than from behind. Stopping was not suggested in her notes. Besides she had no idea if the wind would die down or not. She could be waiting quite some time before it mellowed enough to make her run easy. There was a cabin indicated on the other side of the river she crossed and she considered stopping.
No. They were nearly at the halfway point and any delay would take a bite out of her standings. That rookie was still back there and she knew that a couple of other mushers had gotten the jump on her at the last checkpoint. Another scan of her dogs showed them strong and solid. They would push on through.
The Kwik River lay before them, and the team crossed with ease. Within a mile or two, the trail turned so that the wind blew more up their back than crossways, and Lainey breathed a sigh. Even her dogs seemed happier, their tails wagging a bit more as they no longer fought every step of the way. They dropped back onto sea ice. The Moses Point beacon blinked ahead of her and her team pressed forward on the smooth and straight trail. Even the false menace of cracking sea ice did not faze Lainey now, pleased to be out of the wind tunnel. Soon even that threat to her equilibrium was gone as they climbed back onto shore.
Old Elim was ahead, abandoned for whatever reasons and converted into a fishing camp. They passed old buildings boarded up for winter, but in the darkness of dawn, Lainey thought she saw a light shining in one of the cabins. Did people come out here for the race? The wind nipped at her heels and her team continued on, leaving the near ghost village to whatever brave soul preferred the solitude.
More buildings ahead, the Moses Point station, also abandoned. As the sky lightened toward dawn, Lainey could make out towers in the distance. The one beacon blinked on and on. Once she passed the last of them, the trail turned onto a road.
The wind had blown the road bare in spots. Lainey was glad the gravel here was not as devastating to her runners as the one outside the Unalakleet checkpoint. Still, the ride was a rough one, and she directed the dogs to the shoulder where at least some snow remained.
Flat lands gave way to a steady climb. The snow here was packed and she jumped off the runners to run along with the dogs until they reached the summit. It was not as difficult as the three step series of the Blueberry Hills to Shaktoolik, but this was a tough climb nonetheless. As they struggled, Lainey realized that coming through before dawn was the perfect time. She shed her parka to keep from sweating. She did not envy the others coming behind her who arrived in the heat of the afternoon; their dogs would suffer the consequences by over heating.
At the summit, she hopped back aboard the sled and they began a leisurely descent. She saw the lights of Elim and checked her watch. It was after eight in the morning; they had been on this stretch of trail for just over five hours. The leg to Golovin was only twenty-eight miles. Should she snack the dogs and blow through, or take the six hour break she was scheduled? Had she come through in the afternoon, waiting for nightfall would have been the plan to give the dogs a chance to cool down. Such was not the case and her team looked ready for bear.
The checkpoint was a state run maintenance garage. Lainey pulled up and signed in.
"Nope. Blowing through."
The checker nodded and made a notation. "Had a good run then?"
"Better than some," Lainey said.
Once the vet checked her dogs, she picked up her food drop. That would see her through to White Mountain. It seemed silly to have a food drop at Golovin which was such a short distance away. Between Elim and White Mountain was the one small checkpoint and only fifty miles so she had not sent anything to the Golovin checkpoint.
After the drop was packed, she went up the line with treats, booties and ointment, moving on automatic as she greeted each animal with affection and food. She ascertained the health of each dog, heaping praise upon their furry heads. Even Bonaparte, who did the totally unexpected and licked her face. Lainey blinked at him in shock but didn't press the issue, not wanting to get his back up. He must be as tired as she was to have allowed his regal manner to slip.
She brought the team back to the checkpoint.
A volunteer skidded forward, holding a white envelope, and Lainey smiled.
Remember our twenty-four in McGrath? When I woke up, I was wrapped around you and couldn't help myself. I've dreamed of holding you like that for months. I can't wait for you to meet me in Nome.
Our room is tucked into the back of Beth's house. I'm looking forward to sharing the bed with you. No parents, no little brothers or sisters, no dogs, no race to prepare for. Just you and me in our private hideaway.
I don't plan on stopping next time.
She carefully put Scotch's latest note with the others and stomped upon her rampaging libido. Now was not the time to be sidetracked. With some effort, she forced herself to pay attention to the trail.
They promptly headed back out onto sea ice. Even with the deep booming crack she heard, Lainey did not falter. She had more important things to consider, like getting to Nome and jumping Scotch Fuller's bones at her first opportunity.
"Stop that!" she said aloud, smirking. Samson grinned at her from his position, used to her occasional outbursts after so long on the trail. She smiled back at him.
After only a couple of miles, the trail pushed inland and upward. The climb was a gradual one at first and the added forest helped cut the wind. In fact, as they mushed along, Lainey could almost imagine they were back at home on one of the trails she was familiar with. Protected from wind, the trail was not drifted over and they made good time. Two miles further on they pulled out of the treeline and reached the top of a ridge.
Lainey's notes specified 'Great View,' sharply underlined. Since they were on level ground, she called the dogs to a halt. Granted, they had not really gone far, but she gave them a small snack anyway. She was already considering blowing through Golovin, too, and pushing through to White Mountain. Better to give the team frequent rest breaks now than exhaust them before the end of this run.
As they snapped up the white fish, she looked out over the scenery, glad it was daylight with good visibility. The sky held a hefty dose of cloud cover, but there were occasional bald spots of blue. Scotch was right; it was a good view. In fact, Lainey thought she could see a musher on the ice in the distance. She got out her camera and took a photograph, then caught one of her dogs resting and watching her. Putting it away, she pulled the snow hook.
They remained on the ridge for about a mile and dropped down into a valley. There were no trees here, and Lainey missed them. Another incline towered before her, and she urged the dogs onward and upward. This climb was shorter in length than the last, but a little steeper. The trail had been used recently, the only indication that someone had left Elim before her. At least she would not have to pack it down for her dogs.
It topped out on a saddle called Little McKinley. From here she saw the next checkpoint on a rocky peninsula. Lainey had to get another picture and stopped her team long enough to accommodate her obsession.
The down slope was more difficult than the climb. As they began the run, she only braked enough to keep the sled from running up her wheel dogs' butts. At the first turn, however, she realized how fast she was going when the sled nearly tipped over. Shades of the Dalzell Gorge came to mind, and she stomped on the brakes and brake pad to force the dogs to a crawl. It was well she did. The next three or four miles turned out to be precarious ones as she fought twisting trails, glare ice, side hills and even bare ground. Eventually the trail leveled out and they continued on a gentle decline into a creek valley and toward the sea. Again they dropped onto the ice, this time in full view of Golovin. The trail here was good and solid and they made excellent time along the bay and up onto the peninsula.
There appeared to be no official checkpoint, at least none that Lainey could see. She mushed the team right into the center of town, stopping at an Iditarod sign. An old fellow came out of a building, zipping up his parka, a clipboard under his arm.
"Welcome to Golovin," he said. "I've got your time in at ten fifty-three AM and thirty-two seconds."
Just under two hours. And White Mountain was only eighteen miles further on. Lainey signed in.
"If you want to stay, I can guide you to Semko's back yard," the man said. "He's down the street a bit to the left."
Smiling, Lainey looked at her team. None had laid down, letting her know that she could probably push them on a little further with no repercussions. "What do you think, guys? Take a nap or go home?"
All the dogs had heard 'go home' in the course of their training. It indicated they were almost finished and heading for the kennel for food and rest. Scotch had told her to use the command sparingly on the race trail. Ultimately, it was a fake out to keep the dogs moving that extra little bit toward their destination. If used too often, the team would know it for a lie and not give her the added energy to reach her goal.
Chibee and Montana yipped and the others shook themselves, tails wagging.
"I think that answers that question," Lainey said to the checker. "Let me snack them and check out."
She gave them each a chunk of moose liver and a quick examination of their paws and wrists. It was somewhat underhanded to trick them like this, but it would be foolish to take a break here and then be required to take a mandatory eight hour break a couple of hours down the trail. Lainey knew any one coming behind her would do the same.
In ten minutes, she was mushing out of Golovin.
This section of the trail was smooth sailing. Even with it nearing noon and heating up, the dogs had an easy run along a straight and well-established path. The trail was so even, it took some time for her to realize they had left the sea ice behind and were working up a river valley. They soon began a gentle series of climbs and drops, edging further along the river as they went. Eventually the trail swung to the right and Lainey saw the town of White Mountain on the river bank.
Trail markers guided her to the checkpoint right on the bank of the Fish River beneath town. She checked in a little after one in the afternoon. Her team had run for a full eight hour stretch and seemed in good spirits. At least they were not as tired as they had been on the last monster crossing. Still, they promptly snuggled into their straw beds after a good lunch.
Lainey was as tired as they were, though the added promise of seeing the end of her journey kept her energized. She gathered wet gear and her sleeping bag. The checkpoint building was a couple of blocks away, just like in Koyuk. There she had slept outdoors to evade pursuit by other mushers. Here it made no difference as everyone checking in at White Mountain was required to cool their heels for eight hours. Times in and out were publicly posted, and no one could cut their time short to get a jump on the competition.
The building was a combination city hall and library that boasted a kitchen. Several people lounged about, some sleeping in corners as they awaited their departure. As much as Lainey wanted to join them, she trudged toward an area draped with clothesline and hung dog booties and a pair of boot liners to dry.
"I'm whipping up fried egg sandwiches," a familiar voice said. "You want one?"
Lainey spun around. "Ben?"
Strauss grinned at her, a spatula in one hand. "Does that mean yes?"
"Yes!" She gave him a hug, not surprised to find tears in her eyes. God, she needed sleep. Hastily wiping her nose some tissue she pulled from her pocket, she released him. "I'm glad to see you."
"Ditto that," he said, waving her toward the kitchen.
Lainey tossed her sleeping bag under a table and sat down. "How long have you been here?"
"Came in yesterday afternoon once we figured out you were going to be here soon."
He cracked an egg into a frying pan, his back to her. Another volunteer worked at a counter, slathering mayonnaise on slices of bread. Besides Lainey there were two other mushers waiting to eat. One drowsed in his chair and the other nursed a cup of coffee in silence. Neither looked any more alert than she felt.
"Has Scotch made it in, yet? I haven't had time to check the statistics."
Strauss turned and smiled at her. "She sure did. Came in yesterday. Third place! And it was a damned close call, too."
Lainey wanted to get up and dance but could not dredge up the energy. Instead she kicked off her boots and sighed. "That's fantastic! How close a call are we talking about?"
The sound of sizzling egg filled the kitchen and Strauss turned back to his pan. "Well, Dave Creavey took first, of course. He had a two hour lead when he got here. Jon Waters and Drew Owens both pulled in before Scotch. She had to make up some good time to pass either of them."
He flipped an egg and Lainey's good mood rapidly shifted to impatience. "Well?" she urged.
Strauss shrugged. "Well," he repeated, "Waters came in second, but it was neck and neck with Owens and Scotch. You should have seen the excitement at the finish line! Man, they were screaming and yelling so loud, I couldn't even hear the dogs barking."
Lainey did not have to imagine it; she had been witness to a similar occurrence the previous year. Considering this was for the third place position, it was easy for her to conceive how much of a hullabaloo it must have been. She remembered Drew Owens eye balling Scotch back in the first days of the race.
"Anyway, at the last minute, Scotch's dogs put on an extra burst of speed and gave her a near photo finish. She couldn't have been more than two feet ahead of Owens." Strauss slapped a fried egg onto one of the prepared sandwiches. "It took the judges about fifteen minutes to finalize their decision, but they called it for Scotch."
"She's going to win that some day," one of the mushers said. "Mark my words."
"I know," Lainey agreed, pleased for her friend's success. "I hope I'm there to see it, too."
Strauss delivered a plate to her, an alert expression on his face. "Think you will be?"
She gazed levelly at him. "Yeah, I think I will."
He nodded in acceptance. "Eat up," he said, returning to the stove and starting another egg.
Lainey knew they would have to have a long talk in the near future, but not until the race was over and she and Scotch had time to figure out what they were going to do with their lives. Not wanting to dwell on it, she ate her lunch and followed the conversation over her head as the musher and Strauss continued to chat.
When she was finished, she stood and stretched. "I'm going to catch some sleep."
"Well, you might want to wait a little longer for that," Strauss said, finally sitting down to eat himself. He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to her. "There's a phone in the other room. You're supposed to call that number."
She gave him a suspicious look. "Is this who I think it's from?"
He considered a moment, chewing. "Tall, blonde and tired?"
"Yup, that's who it's from."
Lainey smacked him on the shoulder. "You should have given this to me the minute I walked in the door!" She spun around and headed for the phone.
"Uh uh," he said to her back. "I was ordered to make sure you ate first."
She found the phone. A sign next to it indicated all mushers were allowed only fifteen minutes. Here was the nerve center of the checkpoint. The statistics board hung on one wall and a white board beside it had the list of finishers. Scotch's name was the third on the list, her time less than three seconds different from Owens.
A ham radio set up hulked on one of the tables, manned by a . . . woman. Lainey smiled at the word play and gave the operator a nod. She received one in return, the woman hardly pausing in her discussion over the air waves.
Lainey's hand shook as she dialed the number on the paper. She felt ten kinds of fool for being so nervous. This was Scotch, for crissakes! They had been living together for months! There was no reason to be so skittish.
As she listened the line ringing on the other end, she swallowed hard.
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