It only took a moment to lose the dog team. At a fork in the trail Lars Lopez hesitated, then jogged ahead past the team for a better view. He didn't bother to pound in the snow hook. But even as he decided that the left branch was the coastal route to Nome, his dogs chose to go right.
Lars stared at the empty trail. It was only his third day in the Alaskan bush--not long enough to be hallucinating. Besides, after last year's fiasco, he had trained himself to know the difference between reality and delusion and he knew that the sight before him now was real enough. But he blinked, wiped away a tear brought on by the stinging Arctic gale, and looked again to be sure.
His dog team was already half a mile away, still running at full trot down the snowpacked trail. His sled rocketed along behind the team, carrying away his food and gear. He stood and watched his dogs, his sled, and his life for the past two years disappear into the arctic twilight. Within moments the dogs' playful, exuberant barking was swallowed by the howling silence of the Alaskan tundra.
Lars stamped his feet but the cold and frustration remained. The nearest town was an Inupiat Eskimo village called Nuviakchak, ten miles back. Though Lars knew the Eskimos would welcome and shelter him, he ignored the temptation to retreat to it. He had invested everything in these dogs. He couldn't afford to lose them now.
So he flipped up his hood and followed the pawprints west, more irritated with himself than with the dogs. He twisted his mouth wryly. For once he would have welcomed a hallucination instead of reality. Whatever grip the past still held on him, it could at least be temporarily ignored. The Alaskan winter made more immediate demands.
A frigid wind off the Bering Sea stung his face despite the ruffed hood and polarfleece face mask. Underneath them, his shoulder-length brown hair felt dirty and dull. His glacier-blue eyes teared and blinked against the gale. In the pale light of his headlamp the snow underfoot appeared well-packed by the tread of a snowmachine, but every step Lars took punched through at least six inches, throwing him off balance. He couldn't walk fast enough to keep warm.
His dogs were thoroughbreds, selected for speed and endurance. He knew how far they could run without rest. The question was how far they would run without him.
A throbbing hum came his way, carried on the wind. The sound of snowmachines in an Alaskan winter, idling through the frozen night. Squinting, Lars spotted a smudge silhouetted against the slumping mounds of the Kigluaik mountains. He warmed slightly, suddenly hopeful. Perhaps it was the scent of people that had lured his dogs down this trail. They rarely strayed without a good reason.
Whoever was out here would undoubtedly be Inupiat, for whom this bitter gale was nothing remarkable. The tundra was their backyard. To Lars, however, it was still mysterious and forbidding--the Great Whiteness, as Jack London called it, though right now it was more accurately the Great Dimness. Twenty-six Minnesota winters had prepared Lars for Anchorage's relatively mild climate but not for the unending nights and hundred-below wind chills of the Bering Sea coast.
Even now, though, facing the wind, Lars preferred winter in Alaska over summer. Snow turned the green-brown tundra into a glorious world where life was cold and simple. Winter held so much promise--of fresh air and borealis skies, of mushing on wooden sleds rather than four-wheel ATVs, of overnight trips away from Mona's spiky silences. And of course, of the Iditarod itself. The 1200-mile sleddog race from Anchorage to Nome was what had drawn Lars to Alaska two years ago and it still dominated his dreams and his days.
As he closed on the noise, Lars made out the silhouettes of his dog team and two men. Behind them were several snowmachines--snowmobiles built for Alaskan extremes--and a long cargo sled. Lars swept the beam of his headlamp across the scene. Both the men holding his dog team wore snowshoes and bulky Arctic suits. Both were armed with hunting rifles. This was hardly unusual--Lars himself had a pistol tucked just under the flap of his sledbag in case bears or moose threatened his dogs.
As he approached his sled, Lars scanned his headlamp across the team. Jewels, Oscar, Coco, Jetta, Mattie...yes, all nine were there, securely hooked to the gangline. They looked happy to see him, good nature glinting in their eyes as if to say, "Hey, Dad, what took you so long?" Much as he wanted to be angry, Lars was not. It was his own stupid fault; he should have buried the snow hook. The steel claw lay on the snow beside the sled. Alongside it was the ten-foot nylon snubline Lars used to tie the sled off to trees. Lars grasped the sled's handlebar and turned to the men to thank them.
One was decked out in camouflage. With his wary stance and rifle, all he needed to star in an old WWII movie was a gas mask in place of his ski mask. Lars had never seen an Eskimo--or any Alaska Native--in jungle camouflage before. The other man, the one holding the dogteam, wore a black arctic suit and night-vision goggles. The giant solitary eye of the goggles, centered over his forehead, looked like something out of a Greek myth.
GI Joe swung his rifle ominously toward Lars. At least the gesture seemed ominous; there was no way to tell what expression the man wore under his camouflage mask. Lars sucked in the February air slowly, letting it warm in his nose before allowing it into his lungs.
He glanced back at their vehicles. Two snowmachines sat in the trail, humming away quietly. Louder was the yellow snow-tractor. It was hitched to a 40-foot-long sled laden with...something. Blue tarps shrouded the cargo. Lars turned back to the men.
"Thanks. Rambunctious fellows, aren't they? I guess I should have tied them off to a tree."
"This is Native land," Cyclops said. There was no humor in his voice--and no Native accent either. "You got permission to be here?"
Lars kept his eyes on the rifle's barrel and thought for a moment. He knew he was crossing Nuviakchak Village Corporation land but had never heard that permission was necessary. Certainly Emery Ungudruk, his Inupiat dog handler who came from Nuviakchak, had never mentioned it. Lars longed to pull out his handgun, just to balance things out a bit. Instead he merely shook his head.
"Didn't know I needed it." He kept an eye on GI Joe's rifle; it didn't ease down.
"Didn't know you needed it?" GI Joe echoed. "Didn't know you needed it?" His voice slashed through the wind like a thin blade. "What do you think this is--the wild West?" He chuckled at his own joke; his laugh was short and abbreviated, a knife dicing carrots.
"Listen," Lars said, "I took a wrong turn back there at the junction--do you know if this track meets up with the other one?"
Now Cyclops laughed. There seemed to be standing water in his throat which gurgled with every chuckle. He lifted the lead dog Jewels up by her collar until her front paws dangled a foot above the snow. Her head slunk down, cowering below Cyclops's smirk. Thoroughbred racing huskies possessed the fangs of a banshee and the temperament of a bunny.
Cyclops sneered at the dog's subservience. "So you lost your dogs," he said to Lars, "and now you lost your way, eh?"
Lars thought his predicament warranted a bit more sympathy than Cyclops offered and was tempted to say so when Cyclops swung his boot back and kicked Jewels in the ribs. The dog yowled. Lars recoiled as if himself kicked in the groin. Though a dog's skull can deflect a bullet, even a mild kick to its ribs can fatally damage internal organs. And Jewels was best lead dog Lars had--actually, she was the only lead dog he had, but she possessed a rare combination of strength, trail-smarts, and an ESP-like sensitivity to Lars' commands. Jewels was so good that he forgave her an occasional romp in the snow without him. But he could not forgive anyone who abused her.
Lars's hand was resting on the handlebar within a few inches of the sledbag. He slipped his mitted hand into the pocket and withdrew his .44 magnum. It was loaded with hollow point bullets, powerful enough to knock down moose or grizzly. Lars had never fired it at a living being.
"How about letting us on by," he said wearily, keeping the pistol hidden. "Unless there's something we can do you for."
Cyclops swung his head toward Lars--the nightvision scope did little for peripheral vision--and laughed again. Holding Jewels by the collar, far from his legs, he kicked her again, harder. Jewels howled; her forelegs crumpled as she dropped to the snow in pain. The rest of the team kneeled on their forelegs and whimpered submissively.
Only at rare moments like this did Lars Lopez feel his father's Cuban blood pounding through his veins. Although Octavio Lopez's rare displays of anger were reserved solely for Fidel Castro, they had frightened Lars enough to adopt his mother's ironic, Scandinavian take on life.
But he didn't dare shoot. He didn't dare put his dogs at risk. He merely showed his gun and looked hard at Cyclops, then GI Joe, then Cyclops again.
"What's the problem here?" he finally asked.
Cyclops let go of the gangline and strode toward Lars--or tried to. One dog--Mattie, bless her, who like Jewels had pups at home--snarled and lunged at him as he passed, forcing him to scramble off the packed trail. He nearly tripped over his snowshoes. Lars stifled his smile--there was no point antagonizing the man. With a sharp gesture Cyclops told GI Joe to take hold of Jewels and keep the line taut. Lars watched for an opportunity but Cyclops kept an eye on him until GI Joe had a tight grip on the lead dog's harness.
Lars knew the whole team yearned for him to retaliate on Jewels's behalf--though they certainly weren't acting like it. With their forelegs stretched out before them, the dogs bowed down to GI Joe like paupers before a king. Only Mattie strained at her tugline. Inspired by Mattie's example, Jewels nipped at GI Joe's trousers while keeping a wary eye on Cyclops. The camouflaged man scowled and threatened to kick her, though he never did. Encouraged by his restraint, Jewels raised her aim, seeking his knees. He dodged her jaws and swore.
Finally Cyclops reached Lars. He navigated the foot-high dropoff between the snowdrift and the trail with a singular lack of grace. The rifle was all that gave him his authority; in all other ways he was absurdly out of his element. Whatever was going on, neither he nor his parter was the brains behind it.
The two aluminum snowshoes took up the entire width of the trail and, as Cyclops regained his balance, both came to rest atop the nylon snubline. Up close, the nightvision scope strapped to his forehead looked more like a weapon than an eye. Lars stepped back onto the sled runners.
"Give me the gun," ordered Cyclops. Behind the goggles, his face mask was wicking perspiration at a fantastic rate, deepening the blue into black. He'd make a great spokesman for polypropylene, Lars thought, as long as he didn't laugh.
But Cyclops already seemed to have found his niche in life as a goon. Technically Lars, being armed, was on equal footing with him. However, Lars wasn't prepared to actually use his pistol. By all appearances, Cyclops was. Reluctantly Lars handed over his gun.
"Now call off your dog," Cyclops said, tilting his head at Jewels. GI Joe was no longer taking Jewels' harassment calmly. He dodged the slobbery jaws as best he could without stumbling back into the snowdrift. He tried to beat her down, though his soft mitten rarely connected with her head. The team dogs were growing increasingly restless and spread to the wind their whimpering and crying.
"Call off your man," Lars countered. If Cyclops wanted to act tough, well, Lars could act tough too.
Cyclops chuckled. Lars cringed--the effect of that laugh was even worse up close. He shrugged and turned forward.
"Jewels!" he called in a rising pitch. He hoped it sounded like a disciplinary shout. He figured there was no way for Cyclops or GI Joe to know it was also the way he readied the team to run. Jewels paused in mid-bite and looked back at Lars with a peaked brow, her tongue flopping out the side of her mouth. The rest of the dogs only became more frantic. They knew what the next command would be. Lars turned and gave Cyclops a sheepish, submissive smile. The thug raised his rifle suspiciously. Lars lifted the palms of his mitts apologetically and then swung the beam from his headlamp directly into the big eye of the nightvision goggles. Cyclops cursed and looked away; Lars knocked the rifle away and hollered, "Hike!"
Neither Cyclops nor GI Joe was prepared for the explosive power of a dog team, especially a team as anxious as this one. Jewels bolted forward with such a jerk that her nylon harness popped the joints of GI Joe's fingers. He let go with a yelp. Even Lars, who was used to the eruption of speed, nearly lost his grip on the handlebar. The yellow cord beneath Cyclops's snowshoes snapped upward as the sled took up the slack, pitching him over backwards. One shot rang out, headed for the moon. Lars meant to knock GI Joe's rifle away as he passed but the sled was going too fast and the stocky man was already falling backwards into the snowdrift.
Lars squatted on the sled runners to keep a low profile, knees shaking. Jewels leapt smoothly off the trail to detour around the snowmachines and cargo sled. Coco and Oscar, behind her in swing position, followed her precisely and a moment later the sled left the trail with a lurch. Lars heard more shots and stayed low. Despite the abuse heaped on her, Jewels was running strong.
Ten minutes and two miles down the trail, Lars halted the team. The dogs were unusually obedient. They sat and craned their necks back at him in patient silence, barely out of breath. He listened for the distant whine of a snowmachine. Nothing. The silence of winter night banished all sound. He pounded the snow hook in securely and ran forward to check Jewels' ribs. Oblivious to the polarfleece mask, she licked his face as he stripped off his mitts to examine the bones.
Nothing seemed damaged under her thin groin hair, so Lars slipped his mitts back on and returned to the sled. Even with this detour, he ought to reach Nome by midday tomorrow. There he and the dogs could catch a flight back to Anchorage. In twenty-four hours he would be home again. With Mona.
The thought gave him pause. He looked past the dog team, at the dim tundra. More and more this felt like home. He was tempted to remain out here with only dogs and hallucinations for company. Upsetting as the visions were, they were an improvement on Mona.
"Ready boys?" he shouted. Always sensitive to his moods, the dogs noticed the sudden reluctance in his voice and looked back at him. Lars tried to clear his voice of all doubt, tried to inject it with the yearning for home his dogs needed to hear. He could not. Substituting volume for honest emotion, he stepped onto the sled runners and shouted, "Hike!" .
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