by D Jordan Redhawk
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Lainey sat at the dining table in Scotch's cabin. She stared at the blank legal pad before her, a pen rapidly waggling back and forth between her index and middle finger. Normally she would be typing her work into her laptop, but she did not want to run the battery down any more than necessary. Her computer stayed at the main cabin for the most part, keeping itself juiced up and available for the final copies and email correspondence.
Daylight poured in from the two windows above her, as well as through the windows in the loft, as it did almost twenty hours a day. It was August and Lainey was only now getting used to the constant sun. In a couple of months, she might even see darkness go beyond twilight before she fell asleep. The idea that January would find her sitting here with a lantern at three in the afternoon to ward off the constant night seemed almost as alien.
Her training was going well. She had eighteen dogs assigned to her to choose from for March. With Scotch and Rye's help, Lainey had created an elaborate training schedule to keep all animals working together. She had graduated to driving eight dogs at a time now, and had to rotate between her canine companions to ensure each was getting the proper workout. Lainey was the only one to feed her dogs, the only one to spend any significant amount of time with them. Miguel Sanchez, the handler, helped with all the animals, of course, but those on Lainey's team had to look to her as their pack leader.
Lainey tossed down her pen with a grunt and leaned back in the chair. Poked in the back by a torn piece of vinyl for her effort, she readjusted herself, forcing the flap flat with her shoulder.
Howry was working on the final preparations for his first article. Their editor, Strauss, had arranged for their articles to run hand in hand on a quarterly basis rather than filling an entire spring issue. Lainey had to have something to give him by the end of the week or miss her deadline. But she could not seem to focus on anything.
Scotch had been a wonderful instructor. Lainey had learned so much from her about how to handle the dogs; not just about discipline but to get them to want the same things she did. During the mornings, the women spent time together with their chores. Afternoons were for training or tourists. Lainey was not allowed to take any guests out on cart rides yet because she had not learned all the trails. Evenings consisted of another round of feeding and poop scooping, followed by dinner and spending time with the Fullers and Howry. When it was time for bed, Lainey and Scotch would make the trek to their cabin, swapping stories about their day. So many times Lainey wanted to take Scotch's hand, and give her a hug or a kiss. Now that she had gotten to know the woman, she discovered she really liked Scotch as a person. It did not dampen her original desire one bit, much to her chagrin. If anything, she wanted Scotch much more now than when she had started this assignment.
Lainey forced herself back to the paper. Having never missed a deadline, she did not plan on starting now. Her feelings for Scotch could not be used as an excuse. Maybe if she started with a description of one of her runs. Retrieving her pen from the middle of the table, she began to write.
The wind brushes past me at a whopping eleven miles per hour. I hear nothing but the sound of panting dogs, and rubber tires crunching across the previous season's detritus. The smell of pine and loam fill my nostrils, competing with the ever-present odor of dog fur that has become the center of my world for the last forty-five days.
This is one of my first lessons as a musher. I have no license here, no insurance. My only company is a team of eight canine athletes who have decided to give me a shot at leading them. Up ahead is another all-terrain vehicle disappearing around a bend. My partner in crime - my mentor, Scotch Fuller, three time Iditarod finisher - is leading the way. I have no idea where I'm going, just that I'm to follow her lead. Oh, and make sure my team thinks I'm in charge.
Such begins my day of training for the Iditarod sled dog race that takes place every March in Anchorage, Alaska. I am one of thirty-eight rookies signed up for the next one, thirty-eight novices taking on the challenge of what is billed as the Last Great Race in the World.
The days all seem to run together here. The constant sunlight doesn't help my sense of time; I've yet to see full dark since my arrival at the end of June. I hear it might make an appearance by the end of August, at least for a little bit. Until then, I go to sleep in daylight and wake up to daylight, even at 10:00pm and 5:00am.
In the morning, the dogs are seen to first. There are almost a hundred of them at Fuller Kennels. You'd think with that amount they would all sort of run together in the mind, a mass of wet fur and wagging tails with little in the way of distinction but markings on their coats. That's not the case, however, as I've discovered. In the last month and a half I've gotten to know all the animals, and each is different from the last with his or her unique foibles and strengths.
The ones I know the best are my team.
Sholo is all white with bright blue eyes flickering with intelligence. He's a hard worker who has little patience for incompetence, though he's at least polite when I exhibit mine. His ability to stick to a trail is astounding. I've found he'll refuse orders from me and, when I try to call him on it, I discover I was the one in the wrong - the trail didn't go the direction I wanted, or an obvious obstacle that I couldn't see blocked our way. I swear this dog is a barking, shedding dowsing rod.
Trace is Sholo's diametric opposite in appearance. His black coat and eyes will make him difficult to see in the dark (providing I ever see him at night. Some days I have my doubts.) He's finished the Iditarod twice before, leading part of the way. His experience will be a tremendous asset to us when we get to Anchorage.
Behind the lead dogs are another couple of characters. Meshindi is a rookie at two. His only experience has been in sprints last year. His brown eyes are almond shaped, making it seem he's more Asian than canine. He's not 'inscrutable,' by any means. I have no doubts about his opinion on anything as he grins or grumbles at me. Most of his grumbling has to do with interrupting his naps during out training breaks; his grins are for frozen moose liver treats, his favorite.
A leader in training, Montana has had experience in several mid-distance races. This will be the first Iditarod for him, too, but I'm hoping Trace will take him under his . . . paw and show the new guy the ropes. He has a tendency to swagger as he runs, as a young male is prone to do, and is more than willing to wrestle with anyone willing to play.
Behind them is Bonaparte. No one else is allowed in his section of the mainline; he'll balk if he's not treated with proper deference. He's a small dog with a big attitude, and God help the handler who doesn't give His Majesty his due. Despite the regal behavior, he doesn't want to lead - such is the job of mere mortals. Instead, he follows just behind the leaders, keeping the rest of the team in line.
His consort is Kaara. Her name means 'shining light of the morning' and it's so apt. Off white with mottled brows and grays, she gives off a calm and cheerful aura. She's the only dog in the kennel that doesn't call Bonaparte on his snotty attitudes. In fact, she adores him, playing Josephine to his high falutin' ways. It's rumored that she's in love with him. If ever there was a living example of puppy love, Kaara carries it with pride.
Just in front of my ATV are Jonah and Aegis. Male and female, they're the largest dogs on my team, weighing in at a total of one hundred fifty-seven pounds. They're that big because they're the wheel dogs - the animals right in front of the sled. They need the extra power to keep control of a six hundred pound sled during turns. Yet they also must be fast enough to avoid getting run over.
Jonah is a wild and wooly fellow, the mountain man of the team, with shaggy hair and an obsession with pulling. Given the chance, he'd be happy to do all the work, and leave his mates back at home. When the rest of the team hears the command, "Ready," he's the one who leaps forward with the most eagerness to get going.
Aegis is my sweetheart. Her size makes her appear somewhat threatening (though all the dogs are thoroughly adapted to humans from the time they're born.) In reality, she's nothing more than a big mushball who enjoys tummy rubs, and daintily nibbles on her treats while the others wolf theirs down.
The cabin door opened, interrupting Lainey. She looked up to see Scotch clattering down the steps.
"Want to go swimming?" she asked, eyes sparkling. Scotch was without a cap, her tawny blonde curls uncontained. Her skin had taken on a light gold color from her constant exposure to the outdoors. From the looks of her peeling nose, perhaps she had had too much time in the sun.
Lainey smiled in return, wondering how much longer she could take this unrequited yearning. "I don't have a swimsuit," she said. Truth be told, she had been so worried about the coming winter, she had not packed much in the way of summer clothes at all. Last week she had to go into the general store to get some lighter clothing, having not expected to become so acclimated to the Alaskan summer.
Scotch sat down across from her. "Doesn't matter. You can use your sleep clothes. All you need are shorts and a t-shirt. That's what I do."
"Who's going?" Lainey asked, more to keep her talking than to get an answer. She enjoyed hearing the woman's voice, enjoyed the undertone of happiness there.
Scotch's face became even more animated. "Pretty much everybody. You know the trail near the river?" At Lainey's nod, she said, "About a hundred feet around the bend there's a cove. We swim there every summer."
Lainey looked at her article, chewing her lip. "I don't know. I've really got to get this done . . ."
Scotch leaned forward, elbows on the table that showed its age as it wobbled from her weight. "There's a rope swing," she said, a slight wheedling tone coming into her voice.
Looking at her, Lainey could see flecks of dark mixed with the light blue of her irises. At this range, the freckles dusting Scotch's slightly crooked and peeling nose were adorable. She felt her resolve waver, the call of playing with this woman far louder than the professional demand to get the job done and in early.
"You're evil," she finally said.
Realizing she had won, Scotch jumped up with a whoop. "All right!" She headed toward the stairs. "You can change here or at the river."
Lainey stood, refusing to look at the article lest it cause her to change her mind. "Where do you change?" she asked.
Past the door and almost to the loft, Scotch grinned down at her. "At the river. Nothing like getting nekkid in the great outdoors." She disappeared into her half of the sleeping loft.
Staring after her, Lainey felt alternating hot and cold. Surely Scotch was joking, not flirting. Wasn't she?
She carefully put the very vivid image of a naked Scotch out of her mind. Her skin remained flushed, and she muttered under her breath, "God help me. Seven more months of this."
The dogs were not pleased to be left behind. As the ATV roared away without them, they set up a clamor loud enough for Lainey to hear over the engine. She held on for dear life, as Scotch played dare devil, accelerating along the familiar trails at speeds Lainey had not attained. Not that holding Scotch was such a hardship on Lainey's part. Had she known she would be allowed to cuddle against Scotch's back, arms about her slim waist, she would have leapt at the chance to go to the swimming hole long ago.
As they traveled, Lainey tried to keep her lascivious thoughts in line, though her success rate left much to be desired. She mentally followed the trail, noting familiar landmarks, known distances, and turnoffs to other paths. Never mind that Scotch's belly held just the right amount of give to it, indicating a muscled figure with the proper amount of curve to be interesting; or that even with the wind whipping by, the smell of Scotch's hair was strong enough to induce Lainey into hyperventilation as she inhaled as deeply as possible again and again.
The vibration through the seat made thinking of anything else difficult, too.
Feeling deliciously illicit, Lainey leaned her cheek against Scotch's back, soaking in her proximity. Without thought, she gave Scotch a gentle hug, only realizing what she had done when Scotch responded with a squeeze of her arm on Lainey's. Horrified at her faux pas, Lainey attempted to release her, but was held firmly in place.
'Hang on!'Scotch called back.
Lainey, her insides as jittery as her emotions, signaled her understanding with another hug. Scotch patted her arm and returned to driving the ATV.
She closed her eyes, adding this latest interaction to the host of others she had gathered over the last month and a half. Sometimes it seemed Scotch was definitely gay. The woman often made comments that could be misconstrued in a certain way if she were so inclined. But, if she were straight, her remarks would seem normal in every day conversation. Even Howry had noticed, and the two of them had spent quite a bit of time comparing notes.
It was enough to make Lainey cry.
In an effort to distract herself, Lainey returned her attention to her surroundings. She recognized the trail though she had not taken the turn that Scotch drove toward. They dropped fairly fast down an incline, and she clutched at Scotch, feeling a rumble of laughter through her arms. The air become cooler almost immediately as they leveled off onto a trail that paralleled a river.
'When the river's frozen, we take the dogs through here,'Scotch yelled. 'There are more trails on the other side.'
The trees seemed to draw back as they pulled into a clearing already occupied by most of the Fuller clan. One of the trucks, sans dog trailer, sat off a dirt road with its tailgate down, its bed filled with a couple of coolers, an assortment of towels and Bon playing with a beach ball. His mother rummaged through one of the coolers for drinks. The clean smell of fresh water was disturbed by mesquite charcoal smoke as a barbecue squatted nearby, manned by Miguel. Two folding tables and a number of deck chairs clustered together, various picnic items scattered on their surfaces.
Scotch drove up to the truck and turned off the engine.
A whoop of sheer joy exploded into the sudden quiet. Lainey turned to see Howry, wearing a pair of shorts and ratty tennis shoes, swinging on a rope that hung from a tree looming over a small cove. At the apex of his swing, he let the rope go to fly a short way before hitting the water like a cannonball. Irish and another girl her age were already swimming, and yelled at his boisterous arrival in mock indignation.
Lainey's brow furrowed at seeing the strange girl. She reluctantly released Scotch and dismounted the ATV, taking a closer look at the clearing.
The rope moved of its own accord. Lainey followed the action with confusion until she realized there was another rope attached to it, and someone was hoisting it back up the embankment for another round. A young man about Scotch's age stood there, long brown hair tied back in a tail and a light beard adorning his jaw. He wore less than Howry, who had surfaced with another shout.
'Who's that?'she asked, nodding toward the man, not too pleased with his physique. Obviously he worked out with regularity, and his tight swim trunks left little to the imagination.
Scotch, who had begun rummaging in a carry sack she had cradled between her legs for the trip, looked up and smiled. 'That's Martin Schram. His family lives right over that ridge.'She waved. 'Hey, Martin!'
The man turned toward them and smiled when he saw Scotch. He waved back. 'Get up here, Scotch! Let's show these chechakos how to swim in Alaskan waters!'
Laughing, Scotch nodded and returned to her bag, pulling out her swimming gear.
Disgruntled, and trying not to show it, Lainey asked, 'Chechakos?'
Scotch chuckled. 'Newcomers, greenhorns, people who haven't lived in Alaska before.'
'Where's Dad and Rye?'Scotch asked her mother.
Helen, playing catch with her youngest son in the back of the truck, said, 'Soaking around the bend. Phyllis is with them.'
Scotch saw the question before Lainey could utter it. 'Martin's mom. And the girl with Irish is his sister, Teresa.'She scanned the vegetation a safe distance from the river. 'We can probably change over there. If the others are soaking, they'll be on the other side of those boulders.'
Lainey ignored the stab of jealousy as she watched Martin sail gracefully through the air to splash into the natural pool. It was not as if she had any claim to Scotch's attention. Hell, she still had no true idea if Scotch was straight or not. It looked like the question would probably be answered here and now.
She spun around, focusing on Scotch. 'Um, yeah, over there is fine,'she answered hastily. Whether her sudden forced cheerfulness registered with Helen or not was moot. The smile Scotch gave her more than triggered Lainey's warning bells. She promptly busied herself with her daypack, extricating her shorts and t-shirt. 'Shall we?'she asked, doing her damnedest to look innocent.
Scotch led the way. Behind them, the girls and squealed at some game or other they played. Lainey's last sight was of Martin picking over the stones at the riverbank, rubbing his muscular upper arms. He looked cold, and Lainey suddenly wondered about the wisdom of swimming in an Alaskan river.
'You can change here,'Scotch said, gesturing to a sheltered area behind some huckleberry bushes. 'But keep your eyes open. The hot springs are right through there; sometimes people cut through here to get to the swing.'
Lainey blinked. 'Hot springs? Now that sounds like fun.'
'It is,'Scotch said with a grin. 'And when you get too hot, you can take a dip in the river. It's a hell of a wake up, let me tell you.'
She laughed. 'Where are you going to change?'
Scotch pointed to another cluster of berry bushes. 'Right over there. See you in a couple of minutes.'
Lainey waited until she saw Scotch disappear into her impromptu changing room before beginning to undress. She shucked out of her clothes, keeping a wary eye on her surroundings as she donned her sleep shorts and a black t-shirt. Folding her clothing, she set her boots on top of the pile. On her feet were the tennis shoes she had purchased at the general store in the village for working in the dog yard.
Now dressed, her attention wavered toward the cluster of bushes where Scotch disappeared. She saw some movement, caught a tantalizing flash of pale skin, but nothing more. Unable to help herself, she took a step closer, standing on her toes to maybe catch sight of her libido's desire.
'See anything interesting?'
Startled, Lainey jumped and spun around at the loud voice. Howry stood on a passing trail, water still dripping from his body. He shivered, and clutched a towel tighter across his shoulders, but his obvious discomfort did not lessen his joy at busting his friend in a little peeping action. His grin was almost insolent, and he wiggled his eyebrows at her.
Lainey scowled at him. She could not respond the way she wanted, being so close to Scotch's hiding place, and he knew it. 'Nope, just waiting for Scotch to finish,'she said, waving him urgently to move along.
Howry's smile widened. 'Hey, Scotch. Need any help in there? Lainey's offering.'
Her mouth dropped open as she glared daggers at him. She took a step forward, intent on strangling him with his towel, when Scotch answered.
'Naw, I'm done.'
Lainey plastered a pleasant expression onto her face as she turned to see Scotch emerging from her hiding place.
'What do you say we drop these at the truck, and then go to the springs?'she asked, indicating the clothing in her arms.
'I'll see you there,'Howry said, winking at Lainey before continuing down the path.
'Sounds like a plan,'Lainey agreed, relieved he was going away, but dreading the fact he would now be laying in wait for them.
At the truck, Lainey was formerly introduced to Teresa. The two girls were eating hot dogs, doing their level best to ignore Bon making a mess of his ketchup and mustard just out of reach. The handsome Martin was nowhere to be seen. Lainey figured he was with the others at the hot springs.
There was still time to back out. Scotch would not mind if she took the ATV back, would she? Howry would be a pest, Lainey knew, but his teasing was a known entity. What if this Martin fellow had designs on Scotch? She was a beautiful - and single - young woman; he would be a fool not to notice her in that manner.
What if Scotch felt the same way toward him?
Lainey's heart sunk further as Scotch showed her the way to the springs. Well, you wanted to know where you stand, she thought, castigating herself.
The atmosphere became more humid as they neared. The springs were just past the boulders, an area both natural and manmade. Sturdy wooden steps led down to the pool, ending at a long deck flanking the two edges of the pool. Large flat stones circled the remainder of the water, and it was here that Lainey discovered Thom, Rye, and a woman who had to be Phyllis Schram. Martin and Howry sat shoulder deep in the water, warming up after their dip in the river.
Scotch called a greeting and went down the steps toward the deck. Lainey followed, displeased at the overt interest she sensed in Martin, who swam closer.
'Lainey Hughes, Martin Schram. Martin, Lainey,'Scotch said in introduction. She slipped into the water with a sigh, not looking to see if Lainey joined them.
'Pleasure to meet you,'Martin said.
Up close, Lainey was heartened to see that at least the man had bad teeth. Unfortunately, that was the only negative thing she found about his appearance. 'It's nice to meet you, too,'she lied.
The water was deep enough that Scotch was treading it as she moved away from the deck. 'You coming in? It's cooler over here. Warms up as you make your way to the rocks.'
'Sure.'Lainey sat on the deck and put a tentative foot in the water. Her tennis shoe immediately became sodden as warm water washed over her ankle. 'Oh, it is nice,'she said with a smile, forgetting Martin's presence for a moment. She eased over the side, holding the deck to keep afloat.
'It's really good in winter,'Martin said.
Scotch agreed and they shared a smile. Lainey's lip curled. When the woman looked back at her, she ducked under the water to hide her expression, surfacing with a grin. 'I'll bet it is.'
'Come on,'Scotch said, beginning to swim toward the others.
Lainey had little choice but to follow.
Scotch lounged in the back of the truck. Her brother, Bon, lay beside her, napping. Irish and Teresa had left with Phyllis to stay the night at the Schram cabin. Helen had taken the ATV home, needing to check on one of her canine patients at the clinic. The coals in the barbecue had long since burned out, and the men idled around the clearing in patio chairs, digesting a heavy lunch of potato salad and hamburgers as they discussed life, evolution and politics.
As expected, Martin had put the moves on Lainey. Scotch felt a combination of relief and displeasure at his antics. He had always been a player, even when they were children. She had fended off hundreds of advances from him over the years, so his distraction had been a joy. Still, when he had first begun flirting with her friend, happiness was not her first response.
She watched him walking with Lainey along the river. Scotch was uncertain whether Lainey's suggestion of a stroll had been to spend more time with the outgoing young man or to be rid of him. Lainey was a healthy woman. Surely she would want to sow some oats here and there; it wasn't as if she had a steady boyfriend. Traveling the world as she did, she probably had a man in every port and no strings attached.
Did this particular port have to hold Martin though?
And what if Lainey had meant to take a walk with Scotch instead? There was a moment there that Scotch could not tell which her friend wanted. For some reason she had had difficulty reading Lainey's signals all day, which caused Scotch quite a bit of consternation. After a month and a half of close quarters, she thought she knew Lainey pretty well. Today every look or word made her question that supposition. It was like Lainey was hiding something from her. Did she think Scotch and Martin had a thing for each other, and did not want to cause a scene between them? What else could explain that sense of duplicity she had?
Scotch saw they were returning. She eased out of the truck bed, careful to not wake Bon. Wandering over to one of the tables, she stood and nibbled at potato chips until Lainey and Martin were near enough. 'Welcome back,'she said. 'I think I'm going to head home and catch a nap before feeding the dogs. Want to come?'
'That sounds like a great idea!'Lainey answered.
Her lack of hesitation buoyed Scotch's spirits. 'Mom took the ATV, but we can walk.'
'I'm in.'Lainey turned to Martin. 'It was really nice meeting you.'She offered her hand and gave him a handshake.
Scotch grinned at the reappearance of her friend's ultra professionalism. Apparently Martin had not swayed Lainey to his side after all.
He could do nothing but respond in kind under the watchful eye of the others. 'Sure. Let me know if you want to go fishing. I know the perfect spots.'
'I'm sure you do. We'll see how it goes,'Lainey said.
Howry snorted in humor, and Scotch glanced at him. She wondered what was funny, but let it go as Lainey returned to the truck to gather her clothes and change back into her boots.
Hastily, Scotch grabbed her belongings. 'Yeah, let's go.'
Feeling light at heart, and not knowing why, Scotch joined Lainey at the trailhead.
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