by D Jordan Redhawk
Contact me via my website <http://www.djordanredhawk.net/author/contact.php> with critiques, suggestions, or praise.
Under the watchful eye of Scotch, Lainey carefully attached the tugline to Jonah's harness. She finished the connection by attaching a short neckline from the main towline to the dog's collar. Laughing, she fended off the exuberant licking of her new friend, and stood up to examine her work. Jonah was, by far, the largest of the six dogs given the dubious benefit of being on Lainey's team. As soon as she stepped away he began pulling, trying to get the ATV to move. With all the effort he was putting into it, she almost expected the vehicle to pop its brakes and take off without her. "He certainly seems . . . eager," she said.
"Oh, yeah," Scotch agreed. She leaned against the second ATV, her team already hitched and clamoring to get on the trail. Her arms were crossed, and she regarded Jonah with indulgent pride. "He's run all three Iditarods with me. The boy's a go-getter; a powerhouse."
Lainey wondered why Scotch was allowing her the use of dogs from her previous races. Surely she would want the more experienced animals on her team. Maybe Lainey had misunderstood when Scotch officially introduced her to her team this morning at breakfast. Perhaps Lainey would train them, but Scotch would take them on the Iditarod when March arrived.
"Aegis," Lainey said, grinning as she gave the right answer. Scotch waved her off to retrieve the dog.
Shy and sweet, Aegis' attitude was at odds for her size. She, too, was a heavy animal, and Lainey remembered from her lecture that the four-year-old was close to eighty pounds. Both she and Jonah ran in the wheel positions and needed the extra weight and power. Their job was to turn the sled that would weigh upwards of five or six hundred pounds.
Once Aegis was in position, Lainey went back to get the next one. She stopped at an off white bitch called Kaara, but before she could release the dog, Scotch called to her.
"That's a mistake, believe me."
Lainey frowned, ignoring the smiling animal at her feet. "But she's on my team, right?"
"That she is," Scotch said, smothering a grin. "But who's her partner in crime?"
"Bonaparte!" Lainey turned to see the black and white male standing majestic upon his doghouse, nose held in the air with disdain for his canine comrades. "I can't believe I almost forgot that," she muttered to herself, leaving Kaara. Bonaparte was small and just as snooty as his namesake. Lainey had been warned that if he felt slighted in any way, he would refuse to run. She detached his chain, and got a firm grip on his collar in anticipation of his lunge, only to have him stalk regally toward the ATV. Lainey bit back a chuckle, feeling more like a courtesan than a dog handler.
"Whew!" Scotch said, wiping feigned sweat from her brow. "That could have been a disaster."
"Oh, come on. He's a dog; in a week, he wouldn't remember that it was me who flubbed up," Lainey said, attaching the neck and tuglines.
Scotch shrugged. "You'd think so, wouldn't you?"
She did not offer more, and Lainey was left wondering. "Now, Kaara," she said.
"Yup. She's the only one that can work with him. I think it's true love."
"Is that so, Kaara? Are you in love with Bonaparte?" Lainey asked when she returned for the animal. Kaara squirmed as she wagged her entire body in response. Lainey gave her a good scratching before leading her away from her house. "Well, far be it for me to interfere with Cupid's arrows."
Both Bonaparte and Kaara were swing dogs. Their purpose was to not only play follow the leader, but to keep the team in line on turns. They heard the commands from the driver, but heeded the lead dogs in front of them. As Scotch had explained things, if she called out ‘•˘Gee!" and every dog immediately obeyed, the entire team would take a right turn at the same time. Instead, the swing dogs kept the team moving forward until they could arrive at and move into the turn.
Next up were the lead dogs. Lainey had been given two of them. Sholo was an all black male with liquid brown eyes. He had never run a long distance endurance race before, though he had experience leading in smaller races. In particular, he had been with Rye during the last Junior Yukon Quest, which gave Lainey an edge on the next Yukon 250. She would have to run it to qualify for the Iditarod, and Sholo knew the trail from a firsthand encounter.
Trace was Sholo's opposite in appearance, all white with bright blue eyes. If Lainey were allowed to keep him on her team, he would be the one worth his weight in gold. He had run the Iditarod with Scotch for two years, finishing both times. Only a training injury had kept him at the kennel last year.
Lainey hooked Trace and Sholo's collars together, and stood to regard her handiwork. Six sets of canine eyes looked back at her, and she smiled.
"Who's the lead dog?" Scotch asked, climbing aboard her ATV.
"I am." Lainey felt anticipation skitter down her spine as she walked down the line to her vehicle.
Scotch's team tried to pull as soon as she started the engine though the brakes were still on. "These guys are used to a more knowledgeable driver. They'll mind their P's and Q's for a day or two. Expect some acting out after that."
Lainey clambered onto her four-wheel vehicle. "Yes, ma'am," she called over the sounds of engines and anxious barking, sending an impish grin to her mentor. Directly in front of her, Jonah redoubled his efforts to no avail, almost standing in his harness as he tried to get them moving.
Shaking her head, Scotch returned the smile. "Follow me, don't let your dogs get too close to us. Remember your commands."
"Are we talking, or are we driving?"
Scotch's expression changed to amused warning at the challenge. Rather than speak, she called out, "Ready!" Her team tightened any slack on the mainline in anticipation. "Let's go!" She released the brake, and jerked forward as the dogs did what they loved to do.
Lainey watched them go, her team barking in demand to go after them. Sudden anxiety hit her, and she swallowed. What if she could not control them?
Sholo and Trace stared over their shoulders at her. Brown and blue eyes begged the question. She could almost hear their thoughts: Why did you suit us up for the big game if we're stuck sitting on the bench? Let's go!
"Ready!" she called, her voice holding more confidence than she felt. Her leaders swung their heads around in preparation. She popped the brake. "Let's go!"
Her head snapped back as the team surged forward and she clutched at the handles to retain her seat. The dogs happily barked and frolicked on their run, kicking up their feet, tails wagging madly as they towed her along. Thoughts of acquiring a neck brace in the future flew away along the wind that caressed her face.
The team followed Scotch's out of the dog yard and along a wide path. Trees whipped by, and Lainey was amazed to see the speedometer hit eleven miles per hour. She grinned in delight, focusing on the journey. Up ahead, Scotch's team turned right, leaving the main trail. Lainey glanced quickly at her right hand where a large ‘•˘G' was written in blue ink. On her left hand was an ‘•˘H' to remind her of the word ‘•˘haw.' When Sholo and Trace arrived at the turn, she hollered, "Gee!"
Her smile widened as the leaders made an easy turn onto the new trail. The rest of the team followed smoothly, and she steered the ATV after them. With a sled in snow, steering was impossible except by dog power. Here, however, it was necessary; the dogs were not strong enough to pull against thick rubber tires pointing the wrong direction.
Heeding Scotch's warning, Lainey made sure the vehicles remained apart by about two car lengths for the entire trip. The smaller path was rougher than the previous one, and Lainey realized she might have saddle sores before the summer was out. Needing little encouragement from her, the dogs joyfully chased after Scotch. The air was thick with the smell of pine, and the sun flickered from between the trees to splash across Lainey's face.
After a very short time, Scotch raised her hand to signal a stop. Lainey frowned, the mood of her dogs contagious. It was too early; they had hardly gotten started. Despite her disaffection, she called out, "Whoa!" With steady pressure, she applied the brake, bringing her team to a halt behind Scotch's. The woman had parked the ATV. She now stood beside it and rummaged in her backpack for treats.
Lainey parked, as well. "Is that it?" she asked, climbing down, disappointment in her voice.
Scotch looked up at her, pleased surprise on her face. "Not enough for you?"
Refusing to be drawn in, feeling a need to be petulant, Lainey crossed her arms. "No. Not for them, either." She nodded at her eager team.
Laughing, Scotch untied a gallon water jug from the ATV. "Boy, do I understand that. But it's way too hot to give these guys a decent work out. It'll be better when it snows."
Lainey narrowed her eyes. The sun filled the small clearing, and she felt a slight haze of sweat on her face, even though she had not done anything. She looked at her team, noting the thick coats, and panting tongues. If she was hot, she could only imagine how they felt; they had done all the work. Grudgingly, she had to agree to the wisdom of stopping.
"You'd better snack them, or you'll have a riot on your hands."
That was when she noticed the six pairs of eyes staring at her. Lainey blushed under their scrutiny. "Sorry, guys. Lost my head for a moment." She removed her daypack and pulled a large, cold food storage bag from within. Starting with Sholo and Trace, she gave each dog praise, petting, and a healthy chunk of frozen white fish. Kaara waited politely while Bonaparte was served first. Lainey gave her an extra bit to reward her for her patience. Jonah was as exuberant in his snacking as he was in pulling, standing in his harness to accept his treat. In contrast, Aegis daintily took the fish from Lainey's hand.
"Now we give them a going over to make sure there aren't any strains or injuries," Scotch said. "Nothing too extensive; that's for when you stop for a few hours rest. But if you're snacking the dogs to take a quick break, you still want to give a cursory examination."
Lainey nodded, and went back over her team. Again she started with her leaders. She checked the leads from their collars, examined where their harnesses created pressure across their chests, and gave each animal's shoulders a swift massage. When she was done, she said, "They all look good."
Scotch grinned. "Yeah, they do." She shrugged her pack over her shoulders. "Ready for the return trip?"
"I guess so." Lainey proceeded to pack up.
"Lead the way," Scotch said. "Just remember to turn left at the trail head."
Lainey blinked. "Me?" she asked.
"Well, you're going to have to learn all these trails before winter hits. Best start now." Scotch boarded her ATV, looking over her shoulder. "By snowfall, you should now enough about them to gauge how far to travel in your training. You don't want to over extend your team by going too far too early; it'll cause injuries."
Lainey turned to stare at her dogs. Bonaparte was the only one watching her. Kaara watched him, Jonah rolled on the grass, and Aegis was delicately finishing her snack. Trace and Sholo seemed more interested in Scotch's doings, probably wondering why they were not on her string. They had no idea Lainey was a novice. What would happen if they ever figured it out? A ‘•˘riot' as Scotch called it?
Bonaparte sniffed and looked away.
Feeling irritated with his canine challenge, Lainey smiled in feral anticipation. No way was she going to let some snotty mutt run the show. With a renewed sense of purpose, she marched up to Sholo and Trace, taking the mainline and bringing the dogs around until they faced back the way they had come. She climbed aboard the ATV, cranking the handlebars to the left as far as they would go. Her team was used to such activity, and seemed ready to move out. Lainey made certain the ATV brake was set, and started the vehicle.
Trace and Sholo pulled forward, forcing the other dogs to straighten their line. Jonah's hindquarters flexed as he tried to get them moving by sheer will alone. Kaara gave Bonaparte a quick nuzzle before settling down to business.
Lainey glanced at Scotch, grinning when the woman tipped her baseball cap at her.
"What're you reading?" Scotch asked.
Lainey sat up from her sprawl across the couch, making room for the woman to join her. "The Call of the Wild." She waggled the book at Scotch, taking care to keep her place with one finger.
Scotch chuckled and dropped into the vacated space. "Trying to get a dog's eye view of an Alaskan winter?"
"Something like that." She marked her page with a scrap of paper, setting the book down on the rough-hewn coffee table.
"While the story is historically accurate, don't go basing the Iditarod on it. Modern dogs are way different."
"Okay." Sitting back, Lainey propped her feet on its edge, and turned to regard her roommate. "How'd it go on the day trip? Get any sponsors?"
"Investors only this time," Scotch said. She turned on the couch until she faced Lainey, her legs stretched out along the floor beneath the woman's feet. Frowning, Scotch stared at the ceiling in calculation, silently counting on the fingers of one hand. "I got enough booty money for all the dogs two times over."
Lainey did the math. A buck per booty, four booties per dog, times sixteen dogs and doubled. "That's not bad. Only about a thousand more to go."
"Not bad at all considering it was all from the kids. They saw our website and began saving their allowances last year when their family planned a vacation up here."
"Wow. That is impressive."
Scotch stretched and yawned. "Yeah, they studied the Iditarod in school last year. I promised to list them as supporters on the website next time we update."
Lainey watched her, a slight smile on her face. It would be so nice to cuddle with her. Maybe she could get a series of candid photos of Scotch sometime, something she could take with her when this assignment was over.
Her grin widened at the suspicious look she received. She was always getting busted daydreaming. "How much more in donations do you think you'll need to cover the costs of running the Iditarod this year?"
Scotch eyed her with a mixture of amusement and exasperation. "Is this an interview question?"
"It could be."
"I thought Don was the one doing the articles on me. You're supposed to be reporting about your training instead."
Lainey lifted her chin in slight defiance. "It's still my gig; he wouldn't be here if it weren't for my initial pitch." Her lips curved as she saw mischievousness reflected in Scotch's demeanor. The confidence that originally drew Lainey seemed to emanate throughout the woman in every situation, even playfulness. It was quite a turn on.
"I'll answer you if you answer a question for me."
The glint in Scotch's eye gave Lainey pause. "What's this? An Alaskan form of Truth or Dare?" she asked, hiding her wariness behind humor.
Scotch grinned. "Well, we could do that, too."
Lainey had a moment of dizziness at the thought of playing Truth or Dare with the woman who filled her wet dreams. What a game that would be! Yowza! Forcing her overactive imagination down, Lainey said, "All right. A question for a question. I asked mine first."
With a satisfied air, Scotch relaxed further into the couch. She draped one long arm across the back of it, not quite reaching Lainey's head. "Technically, I'm set for the race. Figure it runs about ten grand after entry fees, gear replacement, food and freight. When you made the deal to train for the race, the money you brought covered both of us."
"Yeah?" Lainey felt a sense of satisfaction.
"Yeah. This is a year of plenty for the kennel. The formula for running one is a buck fifty per dog per day. And we have almost a hundred dogs."
"Have you done this before?" Lainey asked. "Taken on a rookie to train?"
Scotch grinned. "That's two questions, and it's my turn."
Lainey held up her hands in mock surrender. "Fire away."
"What's it like to report from a war zone?"
"Oooh." She could not help but wince, having not expected the query. "Man, you shoot from the hip, don't you?"
A contrite look crossed Scotch's face. "I'm sorry. You don't have to answer that. It's really none of my business."
Lainey reached out and patted Scotch's thigh just above the knee. "No, that's okay. It just surprised me." She drew one foot up to the edge of the couch, wrapping her arms around her shin in thought. "It's one part challenge, one part terror, and three parts excitement - shaken, not stirred."
"On the rocks?"
She laughed. "Yup, you got it." Lainey sobered, remembering. "You hear an explosion or gunfire in the distance; you grab whatever transportation you can find to get to the scene. Your heart is pumping, your nerves jittery. Your destination smells of dust, cordite, and blood. If you're lucky, the perpetrators are long gone. And if you're luckier, they're still there, shooting it out with whoever claims that area.
"Nothing is truly real. You see it all through the viewfinder. It's a photo op, the destruction, the death. There's no time to feel; you have to record the event as it unfolds and hope to God you'll remain in one piece after."
"Did you enjoy it?"
Lainey returned to the present. "Ah, ah, ah," she said, waving a finger. "My turn."
Scotch grinned, and shook her head. "You want me to answer your last one?"
"Nope. I retract it. Why do you run the Iditarod? What's the draw?"
Scotch pressed back against the arm of the couch, crossing her arms over her chest. "I think you've already said it. One part challenge, one part terror, and three parts excitement, though it's stirred in this case."
"On the rocks?"
"Only in warmer years with little snowfall." She remained quiet for a moment.
Lainey snorted. "Oh, no. Now's not the time to get terse. Give me something to go on here."
Scotch chuckled. "Okay, give me a minute."
As she paused in contemplation, Lainey's fascination grew. The aura of strength Scotch already held in abundance solidified and grew around her. The race or the dog sledding was the root of her confidence. Lainey's heart thumped with the realization. Why? How? Not everyone carried themselves this way despite having raced; she had met many of the racers last year, including women, and had not seen it with any of them.
"You're alone with sixteen dogs, crossing the tundra or weaving through trees and brush. It's so cold and the air so crisp that you can actually see better than at any other time, crystal clear. There's nothing but the dogs panting, their feet crunching in the snow, and the next turn of the trail. You feel so small and so insignificant, but the dogs rely on you as you rely on them. I can't really explain it. It's the ultimate high."
They sat in silence for a moment, Scotch mulling over her memories, and Lainey soaking in the feelings those recollections invoked.
Lainey bowed her head in a nod. She watched Scotch shift her gaze away, and begin chewing the inside of her cheek. A frown rippled across her fair features. Lainey braced herself for the next question, sensing it would not be an easy one.
"It's been bugging me since you got here. I know it's none of my business, but I can't seem to shake it." Scotch looked back at her. "Where were you shot?"
She stared blankly at her roommate. Here she thought she would have to answer something really tough like, ‘•˘Are you really drooling every time I walk by or do you just have an advanced case of rabies?' Scotch seemed to retract from the conversation when she did not immediately answer, so Lainey hastened to reassure her. "It's all right. Really."
Sitting up, Lainey dropped her feet to the floor, upsetting Scotch's legs beneath her. They laughed nervously as they readjusted their positions. Lainey stood and turned so that her right side faced Scotch. "I was out with a US military patrol in Kosovo. They were ordered to do a standard sweep through a village for insurgents. Luck was with me then." She lifted her shirt to reveal the scar on her side. "There was an ambush. I got a lot of really good photos of the action."
Scotch grimaced at the jagged scar about six inches long. "Damn, that must have hurt."
Unaccountably nervous, Lainey laughed. "Not at the time." She peered past her shirt at the cause of her sudden career change. "I was prone on the ground behind cover. Nobody realized there was a flanking team until we started getting shot at from behind. The bullet came in at a very low angle." She touched the bottom of the scar, and traced upward. "He was aiming for my heart. Instead it hit and shattered my ribs, poking holes in my lungs."
"Ow," Scotch said in soft sympathy, engrossed in the damage. She reached out and traced the upraised tissue with gentle fingers.
Lainey had not expected her to take the liberty. She swallowed against a desire to cry. What the hell? Shaking her head, she forced a chuckle. "Anyway, I hardly felt it; just a sharp sting in my side. When I tried to get up to follow the rest of the firing team to safety, I couldn't. That's when I passed out. One of them realized I was wounded and carried me out." She stepped slightly away, and pulled her shirt back down. "I don't remember much else until I woke in the hospital."
"You were out for a year. Was most of it in the hospital?"
Despite the fact it was Lainey's turn, she answered. "I was in Kosovo for about two weeks before I could be shipped back to the states. Spent another month in a hospital in Washington DC before being released as an in-patient." She sat down, leaning her elbows on her knees rather than sitting back. "Had some counseling and some physical therapy, but got a clean bill of health after a couple of months. I guess I just needed some time to think about what happened." She did not volunteer that she had spent a good portion of the rest of the year attempting to pickle what inner organs had not been damaged.
Scotch seemed to be at a loss for words, and they sat for a moment.
Lainey pushed away the sudden vulnerability that had reared up at Scotch's touch. She did not know what that was, and had no time to investigate it. After a deep breath, she propped her feet on the coffee table, and relaxed. "My turn."
Smiling, Scotch went with the change of subject, visibly easing.
"Have you ever been hurt on a race?"
"Oh, yeah," Scotch agreed. "Though nowhere nearly as bad as you were. When I was seventeen, I was finally eligible for my first adult race. Ran the Yukon Quest 250 that year. It was my first overnighter that wasn't on familiar territory."
"Frostbite," she said. "I set my gloves down while feeding the dogs during a break. I haven't a clue where they went. It was pretty warm out when I left the checkpoint, so I didn't even notice they weren't with me until it started to cool off."
"Ew." Lainey wrinkled her nose.
Scotch grinned, holding out her hands to study them. "Yeah. The 250 takes about two and a half days to run. I lost the gloves on the second day; had to go through the night and into the next morning to get to the finish line."
"Looks like your hands survived."
"They did. I was lucky that it was such a warm year. I had some leather work gloves with me. My sled wasn't in the best of shape, so I was prepared to make repairs on it. Those and a couple of pairs of socks for mittens kept the worst of the frostbite away." Scotch leaned closer, showing the side of one hand. "You can see where I lost a bit of skin there. The seam on the gloves was worn, and the damage was too much to recuperate from."
Lainey shivered and shook her hands in excess empathy. "Yuck! That gives me the willies."
Scotch leaned back and laughed. "Well, you asked."
"Yuck," she repeated.
"Anything I ask now will seem anticlimactic."
Lainey smiled. "How about we head over to the main cabin for dinner instead? I believe I have a date to beat you at Monopoly."
Scoffing, Scotch said, "You wish. I am the Monopoly Kingpin in this family." She stood and offered her hand.
Lainey accepted the assistance, enjoying the touch too much, and rose. "Time for me to topple your funny money empire, sister."
They shared a look before bursting into laughter.
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