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Regardless of her sudden emotional revelation, Lainey spent the rest of the expedition doing her damnedest to banish her demon. She doubted she was a hundred percent successful when every time she got a good look at Scotch racing ahead of her, her heart thumped in muted joy. As they neared the kennel, she felt she might have gotten a handle on her ardor. It helped that Howry had let her stew in silence after his observation. Not having to defend herself to him gave her plenty of time to work through her available options and come up with a plan.
Not that it was a good plan, but at least she had something.
The last thing Scotch needed was a distraction like this. She was aiming for the top ten in the Iditarod this year and needed to stay concentrated on her dogs and their training. It was never easy for someone to question their sexuality; coming out to one's self was worse than coming out to family and friends. Lives had a tendency to fall apart as the soul searching took over, and Scotch could ill afford the time or heartache.
Moving out of the cabin, while the easiest way to achieve the space needed between them, would make Scotch question Lainey's motives. Even the argument of requiring warmth for her 'football injury' would fall flat. They would both know the reality of the situation. It would only serve to highlight the attempted kiss in the dog barn, and Lainey had to draw the focus away from that.
No, she had to be the adult here, the experienced one. She had to stay put to allay Scotch's fears yet not get intimately involved with her. It would be hell, but Lainey would just have to hang onto this demon for all it was worth. When the race was over, then and only then could she consider sitting Scotch down for a real heart to heart discussion about what was going on with her.
Lainey felt vaguely pleased with her decision, not to mention a bit perplexed at the self-imposed distance she would have to place between them. She would much rather do exactly what Howry had suggested and teach Scotch all the joys of loving a woman. She consoled herself with the knowledge that after the race, things would be different. If Scotch truly felt desire for her, Lainey would be more than happy to reciprocate.
She pushed away the rush of arousal that followed that particular notion. By the time they returned to the kennel, Lainey had set aside her internal debate. Her nerves still fluttered, but she was resolute. She drove the snow machine into the yard, hearing the welcome clamor from the dogs. Pulling up next to Scotch, she saw that Irish and Rye had already returned, their vehicles covered with a light dusting of still falling snow. She turned off the engine, and glanced at the woman beside her.
Scotch's cheeks and nose were red from cold, her eyes sparkling as she grinned. She had yanked back her hood and tawny curls stuck out about her face, flakes of snow starting to settle there. Lainey's heart ached as she returned the smile. Stay away from this? God was a cruel, cruel being.
"It's looking really good," Scotch said, climbing off the snow machine. She pulled off her thick gloves and opened the neck of her parka. "We can only hope the snow stays like this for the entire season!"
The vehicle shifted as Howry got off. "I think it's time to switch to manual cameras," he said, pulling a plastic bag from his pocket. He stuffed his camera inside and zipped it closed. "I ran out of film on the run. If I wind it now, it'll shatter."
"You can always switch to digital," Lainey said sweetly, revisiting an old argument.
"Blasphemy," he muttered. "A camera without real film is an abomination in the sight of the gods."
Lainey smiled and swung her leg over the snow machine, remaining seated. She too removed her gloves. "Are we taking the dogs out today?"
"No. Let's give the trails another run after lunch. Pack 'em down some more. If it keeps coming down, we'll do more tomorrow. The tighter we pack the trails now, the longer they'll last if the temperature rises. It's still early in the season; who knows what the weather will do?"
Standing, Lainey stretched with light misgiving as her ribs gave her a slight jab. The pain was far less than it should be after the extensive ride. They had spent a good three hours roaming the trails surrounding the kennel. By all rights, she should be emulating a rheumatic old woman.
Lainey nodded at Howry. "Surprisingly. I'm glad I heeded Thom's advice. That jacket I had last March was crap."
Without warning, Scotch reached out and grabbed her right hand, forcing Lainey to raise it above her head. The ache was bearable, and completely overshadowed by Scotch's skin against hers.
"You know that liniment we use for wrist injuries?" she asked, still focused on Lainey's ribs.
Blushing at Howry's smirk, she said, "Um, the one for strains and sprains?"
"Yeah." Scotch released her. "I'd bet it'd work on your ribs."
Howry snorted, no doubt entertained with the notion of Scotch possibly offering to apply it to the injury. Lainey so wanted to kick him in the shin, but knew she would have to explain herself to their witness afterward. Instead, she rolled her eyes. "It's for dogs," she reminded Scotch.
"It's been used on people upon occasion." She chuckled. "It might do the trick. You should give it a try."
Scotch's matter-of-fact tone made Lainey view the salve in another light. Its primary purpose was to ease joint aches in the wrists and shoulders of overworked dogs. It was a homegrown remedy created by God only knew who, but it seemed every musher worth his or her salt had a variation on the recipe. An herbal mixture, it was blended with petroleum jelly to give it substance and make it easy to apply. Scotch and her brother both swore by the stuff.
"All right," Lainey conceded. "I'll think about it." Scotch opened her mouth to say something, and Lainey interrupted her. "I'll think about it! Right now, though, I'm starved. Let's get some lunch!"
"That sounds like a great idea," Howry said, moving toward the back deck. Scotch grinned and nodded, dropping whatever she had been planning to say.
Lainey followed both of them, relief coursing through her. She had known exactly what Scotch was going to say. Despite Lainey's recent pledge to avoid awkward situations with Scotch, there was no way she could deny her if she offered to apply ointment.
And that would be a bad, bad idea.
Scotch idled in front of the fire, her feet propped up on an old footstool she had liberated from a thrift store years ago. She wiggled her sock covered toes, and sipped a cup of hot chocolate.
The first snowfall of the season had been a good one. If things held up like this, training would be a breeze. She recalled the winter before last, unseasonably warm, and no major flurries to speak of. It had been bad enough that snow had to be trucked into Anchorage for the ceremonial start of the race. The first third of the journey had been treacherous with bared ground and free running water. A lot of mushers had been forced to scratch the race from injuries to their animals and broken equipment.
Not this year. Scotch relished her contentment. Even if it warmed up a bit, chances were it would not interfere with the hardening trails. After lunch, they had gone another round, packing the trails down for future runs. Tomorrow the sleds would come out and the training would begin in earnest.
The cabin door opened and Lainey stomped inside. A draft followed her, but Scotch was warm enough that the cool air felt nice.
Lainey glanced over her shoulder as she hung her jacket on a peg. "No. It finally stopped." She saw Scotch's face and laughed as she moved down the stairs to return to the couch. "Give it a rest, Fuller! We got two feet today, maybe more."
Scotch's petulant frown eased into a smile. "Yeah, I guess."
Snorting, Lainey kicked off her boots, tucking her feet back underneath a quilt. She leaned forward to retrieve her mug of tea and sank back with a sigh. "You know, there's something I've been meaning to ask you," she said, staring into her cup.
Sudden wariness disrupted Scotch's composure. She had been expecting this all day. Initially she had hoped that Lainey had not realized how close Scotch had come to kissing her. As the day progressed, however, there had been several moments where it seemed she wanted to discuss something. What was Scotch going to say when she asked what had happened? Sorry about the pass, but I've got a crush on you that just won't quit?
Her silence was noticed, and she looked up to see Lainey watching her. "Uh, yeah?" she asked.
"Have you ever considered the benefits of chamber pots as opposed to out houses?"
Scotch stared at Lainey, her mind stuttering to a halt. She blinked and shook her head. "What . . .?"
Lainey grinned and sat up. "Chamber pots. You know. Porcelain pots that you squat in rather than shuffle around in the dark and cold, baring your ass to freezing temperatures." She gave her friend a wave. "I, of all people, understand the rustic life here. I've lived and worked in third world countries. But even in Africa they have a version of the chamber pot. Why don't you?"
Her trepidation faded, replaced with a healthy dose of relief and amusement as she registered what Lainey said. Scotch ruefully ran her hand through her hair. "They're called honey pots around here, and I don't know why I haven't got one. Can't say it's ever come up in conversation."
"Well, it is now," Lainey replied in crisp tones.
Warming to the conversation, Scotch shifted in her chair. "What do you suggest, O Worldly One?"
Lainey stuck out her tongue, causing Scotch to laugh.
"Funny you should ask. I happen to have noticed that there are a lot of five gallon buckets over by the dog barn. I think one of those would make a wonderful indoor privy for those of us without ice in our veins."
"It's you that's cold blooded."
Lainey's brow furrowed. "How do you figure?"
"It's a scientific fact that cold blooded animals get sluggish in lower temperatures. If that doesn't describe you in the morning, I don't know what does."
Lainey stuck out her tongue again.
Scotch barely refrained from asking her if she was offering her services. She blushed and shied away from where that would lead the conversation. "So what are you wanting? My permission to set up a honey pot in the cabin?"
"You live here, too," Lainey said. "I realize that no matter how often it's emptied or how clean I keep it, there'll be some odor involved."
Shrugging one shoulder, Scotch said, "It really won't be that bad." She gave Lainey an inquisitive look, receiving a nod in return. "We could go into town tomorrow after lunch and pick up plastic bags and some lye or something to help control the smell."
Lainey's smile was beautiful. "That'll be great!"
Scotch echoed her grin, an ache in her heart. God, she would love to snuggle under that quilt and kiss Lainey senseless. She ducked her head, unable to shake her amusement, and brought her cup to her lips instead. Of all the people to fall for it had to be an international photo journalist who soon would be off on another adventure.
She wondered again if Lainey was gay. There was nothing definite Scotch could point her finger to, but sometimes it was a word or a look that made her question her initial supposition that Lainey had a man in every port. Or maybe it was Howry. He had a wicked humor and had made several comments in Scotch's hearing. Was he gay and saying those things to Lainey because they were friends?
"What are you thinking?"
Startled from her thoughts, Scotch groped for something to say. "Just thinking about Don."
Lainey cocked her head in silent question.
"He's going to have a tough time keeping up with me now that the snow has flown."
"Yeah." Lainey chuckled. "Yeah, he is. But don't underestimate him. He'll probably follow you around on a snowmobile every day if you let him."
"Snowmobile? What the hell, Miss Hughes!" Scotch held her cup in her lap, a stern expression on her face.
"Snow machine! Snow machine!" Lainey raised both hands in surrender, almost upsetting her tea. "I'm sorry, master! I had a momentary relapse!"
"Damned right you did," Scotch groused. "By the time you leave this great state of Alaska, you'll be able to pass for a native." She enjoyed their shared laughter. It was less than what she truly wanted, but good friendships were hard to find. This was one she did not want to screw up.
Lainey went over her sled with care, checking the plastic runners for damage and tugging this way and that to test the rigging. As soon as it passed inspection, she pulled the towlines from the sled bag, laying them out on the icy ground. A few feet away, Scotch mirrored her activities.
Rye and Irish were gone, having left immediately after breakfast, a dog truck full to the brim with excited mutts and three racing sleds. There was a junior event in nearby Wasilla, and they had entered a handful of sprints for the day. It was after lunch now. Chances were good that one if not both of them had placed well and were finishing the last race before heading home.
Once Lainey had the line in place and tested for wear and tear, she set her snow hook, stomping it deep into the snow. For the most part the large curved metal hook served as an anchor to keep the sled immobile. Mindful of the fact that she was running Jonah today, she also tied her snubline to a post. She had learned the hard way that her muscle man wheel dog had a tendency to pop the hook. It took one morning of chasing her team down on foot to retain that particular lesson.
It was a weekend so there were no tourists scheduled. The handler, Miguel, had a group of amateur mushers on a weekend excursion. By now six eager teachers from Minnesota had left a filling and educational lunch at Lafferty's fish camp and were on their way to the other side of the river for an overnight stop at the hot springs.
Lainey had been surprised to discover that after the snow flew, visitors became more frequent, not less. Not only were nearby schools busing their students to outlying kennels for field trips, but Helen received a fair share of veterinary classes from Anchorage. Apparently, hers was the only local animal hospital attached to a racing kennel, and the graduate students came from miles around to see the full operation.
And then there were the neighbors. It seemed like everyone in and around the nearby village had stopped by at least once since the snow began, many of them on dog sleds. Of those, most used their dogs as winter transportation, a string of three or four animals hauling them around the area. One man lived in the bush, trapping and fishing for a living, and he followed his trap line like clockwork. Three others were in training for various races, to include the Iditarod. While they idled over the requisite cup of coffee, Lainey listened raptly to their tales of races won and lost, gleaning as much as possible from their experiences.
Lainey pulled a small notebook from her pocket and flipped it open. She had twenty dogs to train, and had worked up a running schedule with Scotch's help. When it came down to the race, she would only be allowed sixteen, but Scotch had made certain she had a decent selection from which to draw. This early in the training season, they were both running ten dog teams, mixing and matching the animals to get them comfortable with working together. She checked her list for Saturday afternoons, and went to round up her team.
Soon a mass of furry barking animals tugged on the sled, their vocalizations answered by Scotch's team and the anguished demands of those being left behind. Though Lainey had been mushing dogs for a month now, their excitement was catching, and she found herself wanting to hurry through the final checks. Instead, she calmed her exhilaration and went down the line, rechecking tuglines, necklines and the heavy rubber shock cord.
At her sled, she did a quick inventory of the mandatory items required for the Iditarod. She had eighty dog booties, a cooker with three bottles of fuel, a three gallon pot and a cooler for cooking and soaking dog chow, another pan for people food, ten plastic bucket lids for dog bowls, an arctic weather sleeping bag, an axe, eight pounds of emergency dog food, a pair of snowshoes, and a plastic bag of frozen white fish to snack the dogs. It seemed a lot in light of the fact she was only going to be gone for three or four hours. But Scotch had insisted on these items as well as some odds and ends survival gear, explaining that a sudden blizzard would kill her just as quick whether she was two miles away from home or two hundred. The one thing Lainey hated to carry was the holstered .44 automatic. She had enough nightmares about guns after her injury; she saw no reason to drag the baleful weapon along, regardless of the danger of wolves or moose on the trail. Though the gun was not mandatory, Scotch had put her foot down, threatening to renege on their contract if she refused. Given no other option, Lainey kept the loathsome thing buried at the foot of the bag.
She zipped up the sled bag, and checked the munchie bag hanging between the handles. Here was a thermos of warm Gatorade, a couple of bags of candy, and some trail mix. Another lesson learned - the dogs were not the only ones working on a run. Tangles with brush, balking dogs, and running behind the sled to lighten the load gave her lots of exercise. The mushers at the finish line last March had made the whole thing seem easy. Lainey was discovering how much work was truly involved for the human element of the team. She was glad she had let Scotch bully her into running every day through summer and fall.
Lainey looked over at Scotch who finished her last minute checks. They had agreed to head out together, but split up about three miles out. Scotch wanted to take her dogs through the ravine, mushing them along a narrow creek bed and up onto the road near the kennel. Lainey hated that run. It reminded her of an Olympic toboggan chute more than anything else. If something happened, she would never be able to muscle her dogs and sled out of it, and probably be dragged behind instead. She already had a couple of experiences of eating snow; she did not wish to repeat them.
She planned on hitting a milder trail near a snow covered meadow. There was a loop there the Fullers had dubbed Dupont Circle after the notorious traffic circle in Washington, DC, with several trails sprouting from its central path. It reiterated Lainey's spoken commands to her leaders, as they had to pay attention or go off on the wrong trail. The run might not be as hazardous as Scotch's destination, but there were some wonderful switchbacks along the route Lainey chose. The Iditarod was over a thousand miles long, and she needed to prepare her dogs for any eventuality.
After the run, she and Scotch planned to meet up at the hot springs to greet Miguel's overnighters and snack the dogs.They'd take a rest break there and bring the teams home in time for dinner.
Everything was ready. Lainey glanced over at Scotch, who stood on the runners of her sled, grinning at her expectantly. She smiled and waved back, mirroring the woman's stance. With one hand on the handlebar, Lainey crouched down to pull the snow hook, placing it in the specially made pouch at the back of the sled bag. She heard Scotch call out commands, and watched from the corner of her eye as her team pulled out of the yard.
Not wanting to be left behind, her team lunged forward, wanting to follow, barking for all they were worth. The sled skimmed sideways, still attached to the pole by the snub line, and she held the handle tightly.
"Ready!" she called. Cochise and Sholo, her leads, pulled forward, straightening the line of dogs. Lainey released the last mooring, and yelled, "Let's go!"
Free to run, the team shot forward, tails wagging and tongues lolling. Within minutes, they were out of the yard, the clamor of those left behind fading in the distance. The dogs always went quiet when they began running, and Lainey sighed at the silence broken only by panting dogs and the swish of a sled going over snow. This was so much better than with an ATV. No running motors, just her and the dogs and the wilderness. Lainey had worked in the bush of many different countries, always enjoying the chance to be alone with nature. It was with some delight that she realized she would be afforded an even deeper sense of solitude on this race.
Up ahead, she barely caught sight of Scotch as she rounded a bend. Small wonder considering the distance. Cochise and Sholo were about twenty feet in front of Lainey, and there had to be a thirty foot gap between them and Scotch. That was another thing about sledding; she could be mushing with all three Fullers and rarely catch a glimpse of any of them unless they passed one another.
The dogs were going at a good clip; Lainey figured they were running at about ten miles per hour. That was to be expected since they were all well rested and eager. A couple of more trails would pass and she would cut off this one and onto another, leaving Scotch to her breakneck roller coaster ride.
The trailhead came up, its entry marked by a fluttering red strip of cloth. As Cochise came abreast of it, Lainey called, "Haw!" The husky and his all black partner automatically turned left and onto the path. Behind them, the swing dogs - Montana and Meshindi - followed the smooth arc, leading the rest of the team forward and into the turn. Dablo, Bast, Tecumseh, and Heldig plodded dutifully along. When the sled arrived at the turn, Jonah and Aziz, the burly wheel dogs, put their formidable strength into it, yanking the sled onto the now trail with relative ease.
"Good dogs!" Lainey called, watching ears prick back to hear her praise. She grinned against the chill wind along her cheeks. Had anyone told her she would one day relish being in below freezing temperatures on the back of a dog sled, she would have laughed in their faces.
All in all, it had been a good idea to arrive at the end of June. It had given Lainey an opportunity to become acclimated to the cooler temperatures and gradual change of seasons. The weather did not affect her nearly as bad as it had in March, coming from sweltering sun to icy expanses. With Thom Fuller's help, she had purchased the proper arctic gear, as well, and she rode her sled with little discomfort. Native mukluks covered her feet, and she wore bibbed snowpants recommended for mountaineering. Her parka was a pullover, like Scotch's, the lack of zippers and snaps giving added protection as wind and snow had no points of entry. Helen had sewn an extra pocket high up on the right side, its size perfect to accommodate a hand warmer nestled against Lainey's ribs.
Toasty and warm, she watched the world open up as the team pulled into Dupont Circle. Each of the half dozen trails were marked with a different colored flag. The one she wanted flickered green, but Lainey allowed her team to pass it without command. There had been another spate of snow the night before, and the dogs took the opportunity to bite at snow drifts as they passed quenching their thirst and cooling off. She looked over the lot of them, careful to note their body language, searching for anything out of the ordinary to indicate discomfort or injury.
The dogs ran well, loping back around the circle. Sholo glanced over his shoulder as they passed their point of entry. Lainey could imagine what he was thinking - You brought us here. Where the hell are we going? She laughed aloud and called the command when they got to the proper trailhead. "Gee!"
Like a well-oiled machine, the team turned right, leaving the meadow for a run through dense brush. Here Lainey paid more attention to her surroundings as trees crowded close. Sweepers were a real danger, limbs hanging low enough to knock the musher from the sled. The close confines caused the dogs to slow a bit, and Lainey hopped off the runners, trotting behind the sled to lighten the load. Up ahead she saw orange paint on a tree trunk, indicating the first switchback.
Sholo and Cochise easily navigated the trail as it doubled back on itself. Of course, they had the benefit of years of experience on the paths around the kennel. They ran out of sight, and Lainey watched the rest of her team disappear around the bend. When the swing dogs were the last, she jumped back on the runners, leaning hard to the left. The sled jerked left, the momentum forcing her right like the end of a whip, but her preparation kept the her upright and on course. Exhilarated, she stepped off the sled and ran some more, her breath steaming in front of her. The dogs, tails wagging, continued on to the next hairpin turn.
After the third turn, Lainey noticed the team's attention diverted from the trail. Their ears pricked toward the right, and she peered in that direction, unable to see anything through the undergrowth. Maybe they smelled a rabbit or another dog team in the area. In any case, their divided attention became her concern. She kept close eye on the dogs. One or two of them were young and untrained enough that a romp through the woods in search of an elusive rabbit would be quite entertaining. Something like that had the potential to either cause a mutiny in the ranks or some major damage to the sled and gear should they make a run for it. Lainey reached into the sled for the snow hook, hanging it over the back of the sled bag for easy accessibility.
Pulling through the next turn, Lainey heard Sholo and Cochise barking before she rounded the bend. The sled jerked forward as the dogs pulled with more enthusiasm, more of her team taking up the call. The dogs had never acted this way before. What could have them in such a tumult? Lainey felt the cold tickle of apprehension and adrenaline pumped through her veins. She leaned into the turn, and the thing setting off the dogs came into view.
A bull moose stood near the next switchback, right in the center of the trail. He looked huge, the velvet covering of his antlers long since rubbed off, revealing heavy bone. Lainey knew from lessons with Scotch that rutting season was over. The bulls had finished their annual mating confrontations and were now back to regaining the weight they had lost. The dogs had caught this one stripping bark off a tree that quivered nearby. He had turned from his task to glare at them, but did not seem daunted by being out numbered.
Lainey noted all the details in split seconds, the hormones flushing her system giving her a crisp, clear image. She saw a snort of steam rise from the moose's flared nostrils, saw his shoulders give a shake, the coarse hair bristling, and the slight change of stance as he moved the weight off one of his front legs. A distant part of her mind regretted there was no time to get a decent photograph; she had left her camera in the cabin.
Sholo and Cochise were almost upon the interloper.
"Whoa!" she bellowed. Time slowed more as her feet left the runners to stand on the brake and drag between them. The first was a metal bar with two hooks that dug into the snow, the second a rubber mat with bolts on the underside. She held on to the handlebars one handed, simultaneously pulling the snow hook from its temporary place. Squatting, she forced the tines into the trail beside her, then stood to stomp it down.
The dogs pulled up short, their clamor interrupted by a collective grunt as their chest harnesses held them back. The shock cord did its duty, and none of the animals were injured by the abrupt stop. They now barked joyously at the interesting obstacle in their path, tails wagging in furious anticipation of more fun.
Her leaders were less than thirty feet from the moose, riding high on the exhilaration of their comrades, telling the bull off for blocking their trail. Knowing the true danger, Lainey wildly looked about her for something sturdy enough to tie her snub line to. Her heart sank when she realized she would have to get off the brake to reach the nearest tree. The sled jolted as the dogs tried to surge forward, and she stamped harder on the brake and hook. Tears of frustration and stress stung her eyes as she returned her attention to the moose, praying he would decide to leave the trail.
The bull eyed the noisy gathering and snorted again. He considered his options, and Lainey could almost see the thoughts on his big ugly face. His tormenters did not close in, and he was in a foul mood from a combination of their noise and his hunger. Obviously he had the upper hoof, so to speak.
Horrified, Lainey watched the bull step forward, her dogs barking louder in response. His next step was quicker, and he dropped his head, preparing to charge, his formidable antlers lunging toward them.
"Hard gee!" she screamed. "Sholo! Hard gee!"
Her voice, high and panicked, pierced the ruckus. Amazingly, Sholo tugged to the right, yanking Cochise with him. As the moose rushed the team the leaders began to double back toward the sled.
No longer needed to stay on the brake, Lainey scooped up the snow hook, yelling at the dogs to hurry, hurry! The bull had a head start, however, and Cochise yelped as the deadly antlers tossed him into the air.
The carefully regimented line of dogs fell apart. Sholo continued to pull, Montana and Meshindi doing what they were trained to do. Unfortunately, that meant all of Lainey's dogs were moving forward, into the turn, and closing with an angry moose. The team slowed, Sholo dragging Cochise's limp body along as the wild animal made another lunge, tangling his antlers in tuglines.
Lainey dove over the handlebars, unzipping the sled bag with clumsy hands. It took forever before she rooted it out. She knelt in the sled, the cold heavy steel of the .44 in her hand. There came a moment of terror when she could not reach the trigger, and she swore, ripping her mitten off with her teeth.
Her first attempt did nothing and she stared blankly at the weapon. The safety! The safety's on! With a quick flick of her finger, she released the safety catch and fired.
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