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Snow glittered like a million scattered diamonds in the light cast by the fat, gold moon hovering low on the horizon. Winter in Alaska may be filled with dark days, but its nights were no less beautiful than summer. Silence reigned, broken only by the crackle of the sled runners and the patter of sixteen sets of paws skimming across the icy crust.
Sam Russell tugged the wool scarf down off the lower half of his face and breathed in the frigid, clean air. The moisture in his breath crystallized as it left his mouth. After living in the frozen North for the past four years, he couldn't imagine returning to the the lower forty-eight states with their noise, traffic and pollution.
His broken engagement and his career change were the best things to ever happen to him. He couldn't picture his ex-fiancée, Leanne, braving freezing temperatures or enjoying the solitude. She'd have gone stark raving mad without the shopping malls and soirees of her busy social life.
A shiver coursed down his spine and he replaced the scarf over his nose and mouth.
The sight of another sled in the clearing ahead reminded Sam he wasn't completely alone. Not that he minded Paul Jenkins. Paul was one of the few friends he'd made in his time here.
Although he caught glimpses of Paul through the branches of the spruce trees and lodgepole pine, the trail veered sharply to the right, skirting a jumble of fallen logs crisscrossing the forest floor. Sam leaned to the right and shouted, "Gee!" to lead dogs Hammer and Striker. They turned down the path, the other fourteen dogs following, pulling hard in the traces. The long line of dogs dipped down into a frozen creek bed and back up on the otherside.
When the sled hit the bottom of the creek, the runners slammed against a rock hidden beneath the snow and lurched to the right. Sam bent his knees, absorbing the jolt, then compensated for the listing sled by leaning left. The dogs pressed forward, driven by the need to run.
When canines and sled topped the creek bank, the trail opened to the clearing nestled in the pine forest where Paul awaited them. The team sent up a chorus of yelps, their excitement over meeting with others of their kind apparent in the added bounce in their step and the frantic tail wagging.
"Whoa!" Sam stepped on the foot brake and anchored the snow hook in the powder, bringing the dogs to a halt beside Paul and his sled. Hammer and Striker flopped down on the snow, barely breathing hard, their ears perked in anticipation of Sam's next command.
"About time you showed up." Paul strode toward him, his boots sinking into snow up to his knees. He pulled his goggles down around his neck and smiled. The man always had an infectious grin, as if he saw something funny in every situation. Paul loved his life in Alaska and wanted everyone to love it right along with him. "Any problems?"
Sam tugged his goggles up on his forehead. "I hit a rock in the creek bottom."
Dark brows angled down over light blue eyes as Paul shot a glance toward Sam's sled. "Any damage?"
"It handled beautifully." He climbed from the runners and sank into the snow.
Paul's frown cleared. "So, how do you like the new sled?"
"So far so good." The sled had arrived two weeks ago and he'd been working with it ever since, testing it thor-ughly before he decided whether or not to use it on the Iditarod. It had to be good to make it in the eleven-hundred-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.
"I've been thinking about investing in a new one myself." Paul scratched at the week-old beard on his chin. "But I'm kinda attached to the one I used last year."
Sam waved a hand toward his sled and team of dogs. "Want to try it out?"
Paul's eyes sparkled. "Do you mind?"
"Not at all." Sam stepped away from the sled. "Did you plan to take them any farther today?"
"No. I didn't want to work the team too hard with the race only two days away. I'm ready to head back and start packing, if you are."
"Yeah. I hadn't planned on going more than ten miles today. Had to replace Jonesy with Trooper and wanted to see how the team reacted to the placement."
"What happened to Jonesy?" Paul knew all the dogs in the shared kennel and cared as much as Sam or Vic about their well-being, not just because of their importance to the race. They were part of the family.
"Vic said Jonesy was favoring his left shoulder. I didn't want to chance it with him."
Paul nodded. "Not with the race so close."
"Tell you what." Sam waved at his sled and team. "Why don't you take my sled back to the house."
"No need. I'll just take it a couple miles to get the feel for it. Don't want to confuse the dogs with a different musher."
Sam snorted. "They're more used to you than me. You're the one who feeds and trains them year-round. I only show up during the wintertime."
"Yeah, but what I wouldn't give for the fun job you do. The Anchorage police force isn't nearly as thrilling as tramping through the woods discovering the next great oil field in the interior."
Sam had to admit he liked being out in the wild, although sometimes it was lonely. "It's not as exciting as you make it sound. It's got its drawbacks. Mainly the politics."
"Oh, come on. Don't make me laugh. I'd trade places with you in a heartbeat to get out in the woods more often." Paul shrugged. "But I know what you mean. We have our own share of politics in the police force, but nothing like what you're dealing with."
"Maybe I'll take you up on that trade. Tramping through the wild with nothing more substantial than an ATV can be hair-raising at times. Especially when you come face-to-face with a grizzly. Although, I think I'd rather face a grizzly than the congressional committees of the White House, any day."
Paul grinned. "Same here. And I'd rather face a grizzly than a moose. I once stood completely still for two hours waiting for a two-thousand-pound bull moose to finish grazing and move off the trail so I could get by. That damn moose really bit into my finish time on the Yukon Quest. Ended up in fourth place that year."
"Out of how many entrants?" Sam asked.
Sam grinned, shaking his head. "I'm not feeling sorry for you."
Paul laughed out loud. "I was pretty proud of my placement. Never got that close before. I'm really looking forward to this race."
"I think you have a shot at the top ten this year."
"So do you, my friend," Paul said.
"I've only been at it for the past three years, I'm glad just to participate. I wouldn't even have considered it without you and Vic leading me by the hand." Sixty-eight entrants were preparing for the race to begin that Saturday, the first weekend of March. Sam still couldn't believe he was going to run in one of the world's most famous dogsled races.
"Yeah, thank God for Vic." Paul pulled his goggles back up over his eyes. "He taught me and Kat everything we know about sledding."
"Speaking of your sister, isn't she getting in today? I'm surprised you're out here running the dogs when she hasn't been home in a year."
"She insisted on Vic picking her up at the airport. She knows this close to the race the dogs need to exercise regularly. Her plane got in around five, so she should be at the house by the time we get back."
"Then we better get going." Sam shifted the brake and walked to the front of his team. As he passed by, the dogs hopped to their feet, tails wagging, ready to resume the run. Sam reached out, patting heads and checking necklines and ganglines along the way. When he reached Striker and Hammer, he knelt and scratched behind the two dogs' ears. "Ready for another run, boys?"
Hammer jumped up in Sam's face, planting a long wet tongue across his cheek.
Sam laughed and wiped away the quickly freezing moisture with the back of his gloved hand. "Line out." Striker immediately leaned forward in his traces, stretching the length of the tethered team. He kicked up snow and dirt with his back feet like a bull facing a matador, as if reminding the rest of the team he was boss. Hammer was a little slower in the effort, but leaned into his harness next to Striker.
"You teamed them well," Paul said. "Striker's the strongest and smartest, but, Hammer has the desire to stay the head of the pack."
Striker stood still, his brown-black eyes peering intently down his pale red snout. He wouldn't jump up in Sam's face unless directed to do so. Striker was the serious, patient lead, chosen for his intelligence and stamina. And in the pecking order among the pack, he was top dog. Even Hammer didn't cross him without retribution.
"Good dog." Sam ruffled Striker's neck and, grabbing the dog's harness, he led the team in a sweeping circle, turning them to face the direction they'd come.
Paul performed the same task with his team, then strode over to Sam's sled. "Ready to go? I want to see how this baby flies."
"You'll like it." Sam grabbed the handlebar of Paul's sled and prepared to follow his friend out of the clearing and back to Paul's home, where he stayed during the winter months.
Paul clicked his tongue and the dogs shot forward and down into the creek bed. Heading home, they stretched out and ran like the wind.
Sam waited until they cleared the creek bed and then shouted, "Let's go!" Paul's team strained against the harnesses as Sam pedaled one foot in the snow until the sled was moving fast enough for him to hop aboard. Down into the creek and back up, they maintained a two-hundred-yard distance behind Paul on the new sled.
The trail wound along the base of a mountain and through the woods, curving with the steep banks of a river.
Sam sank back into the trance of solitude he'd achieved on the trek out. His mind drifted over the snow, erasing all his cares in the wake of the powder stirred up by his runners. This was the life he was meant to lead. No pretense, no corporate clowns calling the shots. Just him, the dogs and hundreds of miles of snow and silence.
Beat the hell out of the shouting matches he had to look forward to in the congressional committee meeting he was due to attend two weeks after the race. The Alaskan senator, James Blalock, wouldn't listen to him when he'd warned that the initial oil samples weren't of a grade sufficient to warrant drilling. With all the stink over disturbing the natural order of the Alaskan interior, he thought Blalock would be happy. Sam shook his head. Who knew what the senator was thinking.
Ahead, Paul raced around a sharp bend in the river on the right and disappeared behind a hill to his left.
Twenty yards from the curve in the trail, the silence was shattered by the sound of dogs yelping. Not the excited yelp of running a race, but the kind of barking they used when hurt or frightened. Sam's heart slammed against his rib cage. What happened? The dogs had been on this path before, they knew the way. Had a moose stepped into the trail?
His team leaped forward without Sam having to encourage them, as if they were just as worried about the other dogs as Sam was about Paul.
When he rounded the corner on the narrow strip of land between the base of the hill and the river below, he didn't see the sled or the dogs. But the yelping continued. Then he saw the runner marks in the snow leading over the ledge of the steep riverbank.
"Whoa!" Sam hit the brake and jammed the hook into the snow, bringing the team to a halt. He leaped off the sled and stared down the embankment toward the frozen river.
The sled lay sideways on the chunky ice fifteen feet below. Sixteen dogs struggled against their tangled ganglines only making the mess worse. Paul was nowhere to be seen.
"Stay!" Sam shouted to the team on the trail and he scrambled down the riverbank to the snow-covered ice below.
When he reached the sled, he clambered to the other side. There on the cold, hard surface of the river lay Paul, as still as death.
"Thanks for picking us up, Vic," Kat Sikes said quietly as the truck ate the miles between Anchorage International Airport and the house nestled in the breathtaking mountains surrounding the city. The ragged peaks were outlined against the starlit night sky, calling to her, welcoming her home.
"I wouldn't have missed you for the world. We don't get to see you very often." He reached across and squeezed her hand. Vic Hughes had been as happy as a little kid to see her step through the security gate. He'd practically crushed every bone in her body hugging her.
Her friend, Nicole "Tazer" Steele had been treated to the same bone-crunching hug as Kat. Unlike Kat's curly mop flying every which way, Tazer's shoulder-length, straight blond hair fell back in place leaving her looking like a model poised to step onto the runway. Beneath the blond beauty's feminine looks was a core of steel. Unarmed, she could drop a two-hundred-fifty-pound man to his knees in seconds. Kat had seen it happen. Thus Nicole had earned her team nickname of Tazer. No one called her Nicole.
Tazer insisted on sitting quietly in the backseat of the SUV. Kat sat up front with Vic. She loved Vic like the father she and Paul lost when they were still in their teens. Vic was the only family they had left in Alaska, a distant cousin, but family nonetheless. Kat struggled to suppress the quick rise of tears. She'd missed Vic and Paul, the dogs and well, everything about home. Taking a deep breath, she asked, "How are the preparations for the race?"
"Paul and Sam are out exercising the dogs.You should ask them. Paul's really excited about his team this year. He thinks he might have a chance to win.And Sam won't do so badly, either. His team's looking really strong."
"Is Sam the boarder Paul took in?"
"Sure is." Vic shot a grin her way. "Nice guy. You're gonna love him."