Runner's Moon - Cover

Runner's Moon

©1995, ©2007, ©2010 by Wes Boyd

Chapter 15

Perhaps he did sleep a little there; at least, the alarm startled him when it went off. Usually, when he woke, there was time for a little comprehension of where he was, what he was doing, but not this time. It was time to rumble, and he knew it. Within seconds, he was out of the cab of the truck, heading back to the tailgate. He opened it, and grabbed a white plastic bucket, then headed for the fire hall, and went straight to the men's room. There was a big, deep sink there, and he filled the bucket halfway with warm water. While it was filling, he used the urinal; he might not have the chance later.

The bucket was a little fuller than he wanted it when he got back to it, so he slopped a little water into the sink. On the way back out, he stopped at the coffeepot and filled a styrofoam cup. He looked around; the place was fuller than it had been before, as many of the back markers had made it in, but, a glance at the restart board showed that there were a few inbounds still out on the trail. The most recent arival was Jim Conger, the guy that had started in front of him, and who he'd passed while still on the lake; Jim's leader must have gotten his act together a little, since he'd passed at least a few people. He really wasn't doing that bad, considering; this was about the time that Mike and Mark had made it to Warsaw back in the first Warsaw Run. Things had sure changed.

He noticed Tiffany and Phil getting up from the table with the Gravengoods and the McMahons. Could they have sat there and shot the shit all this time? Probably so, he thought. Well, his sleep, however brief, gave him that much of an edge. Tiffany was young enough that she could get away with it on an overnighter, but he made a mental note to sometime bring up the importance of getting some sleep at the checkpoints on longer races. But, that was for later.

He went back out to the truck, got out the toy sled and the cooler, and dumped the warm water into what was left of the dog food from earlier, and swirled it around with the cheap saucepan he used for a dipper. Then, he went out, plopped a pan down in front of each dog, and put some of the baited water in each pan -- not anything like earlier, just enough to top off the tank. The yellow marks he could see in the snow, in the light from the streetlights, showed him that the dogs had already run some of the water from the last time through their systems.

The activity started to wake the dogs, some of them reluctantly. Josh didn't particularly want them standing around long, but he was going to have to have the dogs awake to put booties on them, and in the best of circumstances, it was going to take a while.

This was one of the advantages of his late start -- his arrival in seventh place put five dog teams between him and Tiffany, so she wouldn't be too aware of what he was doing. She still hadn't managed to get out to the dog lot yet, so she probably wasn't planning on a full bootie job. Even if she did figure out what Josh was up to, there wouldn't be time enough to counter it with a full bootie job on her dogs.

As he'd expected, putting booties on all the dogs took a while and so did picking up the empty pans. At say, three minutes per dog, along with a little talk, in ten dogs, you went through half an hour. His coffee was cold by the time he was done, but he tossed it down, anyway, more for the sake of needing a little caffiene and hydration himself, but hopefully not so much that he'd need to take a piss call before Spearfish Lake.

He was just finishing up when he noticed Mike leading Tiffany's leaders back out to the restart line. "Mark, how much time we got left?" Josh asked.

"Ten minutes," Mark said.

Just enough time to get his own act together. He loaded the second leg snack bag in the shed, and checked to see the emergency gear was there. Then, he got the hat and headlamp back on, and fastened up his parka. From the small gear bag in the truck, he took a tiny transistor radio with an earplug. The radio went in an inside pocket, and the earplug was run up through the neck of the parka, where he could get at it. He saw Mark looking at him, wondering about the radio. "Figured I'd need the help staying awake," he lied.

His gear now pretty much together, he made one last pass down the line of dogs, shining the headlamp on each one as he went. He'd inspected harnesses while he'd been putting booties on the dogs, the one final check for twisted harnesses or other potential problem areas was worth the trouble.

"Five minutes," Mark said.

"All right, let's do it," Josh said.

They didn't have the herd of handlers they'd had before, but Mark and Jackie along with a couple of the volunteer checkpoint handlers were all that were needed. The dogs were getting up for it, now; they were excited, ready to run, but not so much that the five of them couldn't handle them. They came around the corner of the building just in time to see Tiffany and her team head out the restart chute.

They took their time; Josh didn't want the dogs in the restart chute longer than necessary, for they knew what that would mean, and he didn't want them wasting energy with four-off-the-floors, although he liked to see them eager.

The restart chute wasn't as big a deal as the start line back in Spearfish Lake had been. Where there had been a big crowd, and loudspeakers, here the chute was only a little longer than the team, more to keep the odd spectators out of the way of the dogs, than anything else. There was no loudspeaker here; just one of the Warsaw firemen's wives, acting as timekeeper, with a clipboard showing the restart times, and a wristwatch clipped to it. "I'll give you a thirty-second warning, then count you down from five. No gun," the timekeeper said. "Is that all right?"

"Fine," Josh said. "How long have I got?"

She glanced at the watch. "About a minute twenty."

Just about right. Josh stood on the sled brake, while several handlers held onto the dogs. "They look good," Mark said.

"They are damn good," Josh replied, loud enough that the dogs could hear him, too.

"Good luck on the way back," Jackie said. "We'll see you at the finish."

"See that Phil gets out clean before you go," Josh said.

"Thirty seconds," the timekeeper said.

"All right, dogs," Josh said loud enough that he could let his excitement show to the dogs. "Are you guys ready to rumble?"

He got some leaps, wags, and a couple four-off-the-floors, in spite of the handlers trying to keep the dogs under control. He stepped on the runners, and got a good grip on the drive bow. This was the part that counted.

"Five seconds ... four ... three ... two..."


" ... one ... MUSH!"

"HIKE! HIKE! HIKE! HIKE!" Josh yelled to the dogs as the handlers stepped back and forty eager paws dug into the snow. The dogs were ready to run; they came out of the hole at least as quickly as they did at Spearfish Lake. Quite quickly, they blasted out of the chute, and past the small crowd -- after all, it was almost three in the morning.

Suddenly, Josh realized that he hadn't seen Jim Horton, and made a mental note to get up and see the old man sometime. They raced up the street -- both crossings were blocked off -- and soon they came to the edge of town. Horton's house was right out on the very edge of town, and as he came up to the house, Josh noticed a car sitting in his driveway, pointing out, engine running, and it made Josh smile. Jim may not have been up to the fire station, but he was watching the race go by. He waved at the shadowy figure in the car, and got a flick of the fog lights in reply.

Not far past Horton's house, the street narrowed to a single lane, obviously plowed out just for the race. It continued northward like that for about half a mile, where another yellow blinker light was flashing. There, Josh knew, the plowing would come to an end, at the turn onto the North Country Trail.

It was a fairly tight turn, Josh knew, and the team was still having its starting rush. He'd never wiped out on this corner, but somebody did in almost every race, and he started trying to slow the dogs, with calls of "EASY!" and dabs of the sled brake. "HAW!" he yelled to Alco and Geep at the corner, and held on as the dogs made the turn. He didn't lose the sled on the corner, but once again, he came that close to it. Once around the turn, he could see the paw prints of a dog team and sled in the snow ahead. The trail was packed pretty well, by the passage of a couple of snowmobiles to try and break trail. You weren't supposed to run iron dogs on the North Country Trail, unless for trail maintenance, and Mark had contended for years that breaking trail for the race counted as maintenance, so nobody in the Trail Association griped too loud.

Normally, he would have tried to slow the dogs down at this point, but he wanted to run hard, until he could catch up with Tiffany, or at least try to for a while. With four minutes lead, she probably had close to a mile on him, and it could take him much of the way to Riverbend if he could do it at all. So, letting the dogs romp for a while longer was part of the plan.

At least the trail right here was reasonable to run fairly fast on. Josh could remember his first Warsaw Run; he'd taken over from Mark at Warsaw. Then, the trail had been so crooked and narrow that Mark and Mike had made the planned decision to wait until they had a little crack of daylight to work with, and Josh trailed Mike, running with him according to the plan they'd worked out, all the way back past 919. The trail had been a bear, then; there were any number of low-hanging sweepers. Mark had spent most of the next summer trying to get the guy from Camden who was supposed to do trail maintenance in this section to get out and do it, but the guy, whoever it was, said the trail was good enough for him. Finally, Mark had taken the bull by the horns, and had run his tractor and brush hog down the trail, with Mike and Josh and Fred Linder going along to cut back the brush on the sides and overhead. The guy from Camden exploded when he saw what Mark had done to "his" trail, and there had been a hell of a pissing match at the Trail Association meeting over it. The upshot was that the trail was now maintained to Mark's standards, by Mark and the Warsaw firemen, and low-hanging sweepers and turns so tight that a five-dog team was marginal were a thing of the past.

As time went by, the dogs dropped back to what Josh figured was a reasonable trail pace. A lot depended on running at least a little faster than Tiffany was running, but there was no way to tell how fast that was. About all Josh could do was to keep up a pace that he was sure would take him back to Spearfish Lake in under 12 hours elapsed time, and hope for the best, and try to keep alert for signs of Tiffany in front of him. The moon was now around in front of him, more or less, still big and fat and full, and he didn't need to bother with the headlamp. As the minutes lengthened into an hour, the one-pit-stop scenario began to look better and better to him, for the farther they went, the more he began to doubt that he'd see Tiffany before Riverbend.

While Mark's doctoring of the trail had made it much easier to run a dogsled on, it was still pretty crooked and blind in spots, and there was one section, about two miles out of Riverbend, that was worse than most. If Tiffany were in here, there'd be no chance of sneaking up on her.

Of course, Murphy ruled; Josh came out of a twisty section, around a sharp corner, and there she was, not fifty yards in front of him, and they were closing the gap pretty fast. Here was one of those instant decisions: take the pass now, while they were close enough, or run behind. Getting ahead meant that she could key her race to him, and could blow up the single pit stop strategy, but she was running slow enough that he didn't have much choice; if he dinked around at this speed for long, he could have Mears and his Siberians on his ass before he knew it. "TRAIL!" he shouted, and Tiffany gee'd George off into the deeper snow on one side of the trail. Alco and Geep stayed on the trail, and as the sleds passed, Josh said, "Everything going OK?"

"OK," was the response he got back.

Now that he had Tiffany behind him, the thing to do was to break contact as quickly as possible. It made a stop at Riverbend pointless; she could catch up with him there, pass him, and break a little ways further down the trail. If he could break free, he had the option of continuing past Riverbend a ways, and taking a break there, or pressing on with the one, maybe one and a half stop strategy he'd worked out earlier. The trail opened up before much longer, he knew; he'd have to keep checking six. If he seemed to be opening the gap, he could press on for a ways, then do half a stop. The Riverbend stop wasn't a cast in stone place to stop, anyway, since no stopping points were cleared on this section, except for stopping right on 919 when they recrossed it, but Riverbend had always been convenient.

Josh kept the steam up; after half a mile, there was a place where he could look back a bit further than elsewhere. Tiffany wasn't close; at least not within a hundred yards or so. But then, maybe she just wanted to drop back to the point where she was barely in contact, just like Josh had planned.

Unknown to Josh, things weren't "OK" with Tiffany. Things had gone fine for most of the first hour, and, also unknown to Josh, she'd worked out the same strategy -- a single stop, maybe a quickie second one if things were going right. But, it wasn't working, mostly because the team was slowing down.

Actually, it wasn't the team that was slowing down, but George that was slowing, and she could tell it. Usually, George was towing the team; now, he was keeping a slack line, and Dasher almost overran him at times. It was hard to figure out; George was almost always the team's powerhouse, its soul. She'd dropped way off the pace for probably the last half hour or so before Josh caught up with her. As he passed, she was starting to get seriously worried about George. He'd run good for a few minutes, then slow, and the overall pace was well off what she wanted.

When Josh passed, she knew that the one-stop strategy was out the window. The obvious thing to do was to press on a little farther to Riverbend, where there was good room to get the sled off the trail, then stop, snack the team, and see what was wrong with George. Maybe he'd picked up some ice in a paw, although that happened rarely. But, she didn't make it to Riverbend before she saw George limping, and that was it, right there. No race was worth injuring a dog over, especially -- most especially -- not her loyal George. There was a slightly wider spot in the trail, and she gee'd the team over to the right, set the snow hook, and went up to see what the problem was. She went right to the paw the dog was favoring, and was surprised to see that he didn't have an ice ball. What she saw was worse: when she pulled her fingers away from his paw, there was blood on them.

That was that. George wasn't going any farther tonight, at least on foot; he'd finish this race in a dog bag on the sled. There was no telling what had caused it; maybe a sharp piece of ice in the trail, maybe some piece of debris. As long as she was stopped, and some re-rigging was going to be involved, it was a good time to do a full stop, snack the dogs, and do a quick paw check.

It turned into more than a quick paw check. She'd seen Josh putting booties on his dogs, but she'd shied away from putting booties on most of hers; the dogs ran better without the booties, and she'd not had much in the way of paw ice buildup in recent weeks, so she only bootied the susceptible ones. Sure enough, there were several dogs that she needed to bootie; it was just as well she stopped.

She was just getting nearly done with the booties, when a dog team loomed out of the blackness. She scrambled to get out of the trail, and saw that the team going by her was Greg Mears and his Siberians. She was just getting the booties on the next dog when another team loomed: Switchstand's familiar form told her that it was Phil. "Everything going OK?" he asked.

"Just a rest stop," she replied, lying through her teeth. Phil probably wouldn't stop until Riverbend, and probably Greg would stop there, too. If Dancer could move the team at all well, she could repass the two of them there. Josh would have to stop, too, but he was far enough ahead that catching up was going to be tough, even if George could have led.

It took her another two or three minutes to finish up. Her last act was to break out the dog bag, and zip George into it, with a big wad of paw salve on his foot. The dog looked mournful; he really wanted to go on, and it was a heartbreaker to be taken out of line, even though he was hurting. She got back behind the sled, took out the snow hook, and hiked the team into action, pushing the sled back out into the trail. The dogs took off running at a good pace, not as fast as she'd like, but in the trail.

As they headed up the trail she slowly began to realize that something else wasn't right: Dancer wasn't moving the team like George did. They were moving along at a good trot, but it wasn't a racing pace, despite desperate urges to "HIKE" from the sled runners.

In a quarter mile, the realization that she'd screwed up big time began to sink into Tiffany. Dancer had run in the lead a lot -- but always with George beside him. Thinking about it, she couldn't remember ever having run Dancer in a single lead before. Without George next to him to give him confidence, he was being tentative, and tentative meant slow.

Tiffany knew what to do; she'd remembered Josh talking about trying every dog, until he found one that would lead, on his return through the storm from Warsaw last year. Alco, a dog he'd never considered as a leader, took the team over and won the race for him. Dancer at least knew the commands; who could she run with him, to perk up his confidence? Dasher, currently running in swing, was an obvious choice.

She stopped the team right in the middle of the trail, ran forward, and quickly rerigged a double lead, giving a kind word to both Dasher and Dancer. Why in hell hadn't she done this before, she wondered to herself. She knew the answer -- she'd always had George right there, always reliable, always ready to go, always the obvious answer, always the greatest lead dog since Susan Butcher's Granite, in her eyes. But Susan Butcher always ran Granite in a team with half a dozen other leaders she could call on if she needed. She'd watched Josh struggle with a leader problem for a year, before he'd finally worked out a solution -- under normal conditions, Alco had seemed marginal as a leader to her, but he'd discovered somehow that having Geep alongside improved him immensely. Josh had come up with two solutions, in fact, the way Switchstand was running. Now, she could see that she was going to have to do the same thing; and she made a mental note to talk to Josh about increasing his leader depth even farther, too.

She got back to the sled, pulled the snow hook, and got the team moving again. It was better than before, not perfect, but better. While she stood there, trying to figure out her next move, it struck her who her first three dogs were. "Oh Dasher!" she called, with her first smile in the last twenty minutes. "On Dancer. On, Prancer and..." Nope, not Vixen. She was running in Phil's team.

The team wasn't moving as good as she wanted, but maybe she should give them a few minutes to settle in. "HIKE! HIKE! HIKE!" she called to them, trying to hurry them along.

Not far ahead of Tiffany, both Greg Mears and Phil Wines were taking a breather at Riverbend. Both had discovered a fair share of paw ice, and both decided to bootie up the rest of their teams. Phil had seen Josh putting booties on his whole team, and had had the time to do something about it, so was farther along to begin with, but Greg was a lot more practiced at it than Phil, and predictably, got away a couple minutes ahead of him. Phil was just finishing up when Tiffany went through. He threw the rest of the gear into the sled, then hiked the team back into motion. Switchstand, having had -- and having needed -- the breather, took the team out fast, and they were barely to the top of the hill past the campground before they caught up with Tiffany. She saw them coming, and an idea hit her -- maybe Dasher and Dancer could take their pace from Phil. Before he could even call "Trail", she hawed her team off into the snow once again. As Phil came by, he could see George in the dog bag, and that was all he needed to see. "Trouble?" he asked.

"Try and catch him!" she yelled back. "I'll try and keep up."

Josh was unaware of the drama taking place what was now a couple miles or more behind him, but nobody, least of all him, knew how far in the lead he was. What he suspected was that Tiffany was pulling the trick on him that he'd hoped to pull on her -- hanging back, just on the edge of being in contact, letting him wear his team out, then planning on a drag race up the grade. He kept checking six, but there wasn't any sign of her. Finally, several miles past Riverbend, he decided to go back to his original two-rest strategy, mostly to see if she really was out there. It was far enough that she'd probably have taken her break, so he picked a spot where he stood a good chance of seeing her coming for a ways, drove the dogs off the side of the snow machine track, and grabbed the food bag.

It was a quick stop; he cut it as short as he dared. Fortunately, the paw check went well; only about five or six booties had been tossed, and he was able to get the dogs rebootied again without too much trouble. Finally, with everything ready to go, he went back to the back of the sled, and stared down the trail. Still, no one there. He gave the dogs a couple more minutes to breathe easy and empty their bladders, then decided enough was enough. Still with no sign of anyone on his tail, he got the team moving again.

The late stop had thrown his schedule off a little, so he spent a little time thinking about where to make his second stop. Maybe about the point on top of Turtle Hill, where he'd stopped with Judy the other day, would be about right. Maybe he'd run a bit slower, too; he'd just about convinced himself that he'd broken contact with Tiffany, unless she'd seen him stop and was being awfully cagy. She was capable of that, he knew; race tactics had always been a strong point of hers, and she could still be lurking out there in the shadows. It wasn't even five, yet; it would be another hour and a half or two hours before there was enough light to be sure.

At least this seemed to be working, Tiffany thought. Dasher and Dancer caught right up to Phil and his team, and she hung there, no more than fifteen or twenty yards behind him. With George on point, she'd go ahead and pass, but not with these dogs on point -- it was out of the question. Phil was going pretty good, too; under the circumstances, it was about the best she could hope for. Phil may have been a rookie, but he had a damn good team there, nearly as good as her own when it was at full strength. Switchstand was doing a hell of a job up there in lead. It was hard to tell if they were closing on Mears, but she wouldn't be surprised. Maybe, just maybe if they could keep this up out onto the grade, they might be able to run past him in the open, and maybe, just maybe, she could salvage third, instead of fourth.

Right now, she was mad with herself, though. Over the past year, Josh had several times suggested that she train herself another command leader, just in case, and she'd responded by running Dancer in double lead with George, and she'd convinced herself that it counted as training another command leader. But she'd never quite bothered to check it out. That was going to have to cease, right now. In two years, George would be eight, and that probably was starting to be a little marginal if he could make it to Nome; she'd never quite admitted the reality of that fact to herself, but now it was as strong as it could be. It was best to learn this lesson in the Warsaw Run, rather than in Alaska, she realized. Right for the moment, things were going too well under the circumstances to want to stop and screw around with leaders, but in the next couple of days, before they left for the Beargrease, she'd try every dog that even seemed to have a ghost of leadership potential, and get started with the training. Dasher seemed to be doing pretty good, and she knew she wanted to give Pipeline a try. Snoopy was on the young side, but would be worth a try, too. Though nothing much could be done about it right now, it was a mistake she'd never allow herself to make again.

Ever since his stop, Josh had convinced himself that he was out of contact with Tiffany; if she'd been playing cat and mouse with him, she would have had to have caught him at his rest stop, unless he had a big lead. In fact, he had a couple miles on Mears at that point, although there was no way of knowing that.

The last few miles through the lowlands up to the low part of Turtle Hill seemed to take forever. Much of the trail here was through a deer yarding area, where deer holed up in the winter, and there was always the chance of the team getting the scent of a deer and taking him on a wild goose chase. More as an effort to get their minds off of that, he talked to the team almost continually, telling each dog how good they were, how proud they made him. Besides, hearing himself talk gave him something to listen to. After a while, he began to sing to the team, songs that he occasionally sang to himself, like "City of New Orleans" or "The Rock Island Line", a song that he'd discovered that Bud often sang to himself. "City of New Orleans," he'd picked from Jenny; it wasn't a commercial song for her, but the kind of ballad thing that she really loved, but rarely performed in public. It made the time go by, and may have helped the team run a little faster, to attempt to get away from his singing -- no one would ever accuse him of being the singer that Jenny was.

Coming from the east, it was a gradual climb up the shallow end of Turtle Hill, nothing like the steep descent to 919. The team was keeping up a good trail pace, without much urging, although they slowed a little going up the hill, which was to be expected. Josh had considered stopping at the top of the hill, with its nice view, but with his late stop earlier, he figured he'd better drag it out a bit further. Besides, it was easier to make the descent off Turtle Hill with the dogs at a trail pace, rather than hurrying off of a rest stop. He'd never stopped at 919 during a race, but it was the perfect place, now; besides, he wouldn't have to stomp around in the deep snow; he could tend to the team on the plowed road. Best of all, he'd have a good look back up the hill, well lit by the full moon, now in front of him.

As he came across the top of the hill, he was sorry that he had decided not to stop there, because the view of the snowcovered countryside in the light of the moon was tremendous. It was even better than in the summer, especially that wonderful, special evening he'd spent there alone with Amy. If there were any regrets about losing Amy, that was it. There were some other times later, but that one time was special, a night to remember, one he knew he'd never forget. It had been five years, now -- a long time, at his age.

But life had intervened, and once again he reminded himself that he was doing things he could never have done with Amy. Except for a couple of family interests, she was pretty straight; she'd never have tolerated living in a house with thirty or forty or fifty dogs in a dog lot outside; he'd not have known the power of his hand on the throttle of the SD-38s as they leaned into a long rock train, never known the thrill of a dog team on a moonlit night, never known the complex bundle of worries and joy that came with having a comfortable lead in the Warsaw Run, never have even considered the Iditarod. It was a lot to give up for a good time in bed.

It took some talking to the team and some riding of the sled brake to get down Turtle Hill in good order. As he descended the hill, he could again see yellow blinking lights through the trees; the local ham radio club maintained a roadblock here, to make sure that there wouldn't be any car-dog accidents with the homebound teams. Earlier in the evening, the roadblock had been down at the railroad crossing, but the last mushers had gone through hours before. In a few seconds, he was out to the road, and he hawed the team, to turn down the road, then gave them a "come haw", so they were pointed back at the trail. He brought the dogs to a stop along one side of the road and set the snow hook.

He felt comfortable enough with his lead that he thought he could make it a decent length, but the smart thing would be to get everything out of the way, so he could depart on a moment's notice. Not wasting any time, he grabbed the snack bag again, and hurried up to the front of the team. He fed the dogs quickly, looking for missing booties or other problems as he went. There were six or eight booties missing, not an outrageous figure for the distance they'd gone, but he had plenty of spares. With the snack bag now empty, he tossed it in the sled, and started in on the missing booties, making sure that each bare paw was clear of ice.

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