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The siren blasted three times.
It didn't startle Tatum.
She'd been expecting it.
She peeked out from under her blankets. The clock read 3:46 a.m. She glanced across the tiny bedroom at her mom. Should she wake her? No. She knew what her mom would say. You're not going out in the middle of the night, Tatum. Now go back to sleep.
Her dad? That would be a different story. But he was on the North Slope of Prudhoe Bay inspecting pipelines for leaks. Winter was the only time the ground was hard enough to support heavy equipment. Her dad worked four on and one off--meaning he worked four weeks straight, then had a week off.
Tatum slipped out of bed and punched the stopwatch function on her Timex, a gift from her parents on her thirteenth birthday. Snow pants, boots, parka, gloves. Forty-three seconds. A musher had to be ready faster than that, she knew. Even with his fused ankle, her dad had it down to fifteen seconds.
Keep practicing, she told herself.
She tucked the blanket snugly around her pillow. It didn't look like a real person--more like an oversized teddy bear. It might fool her mom, if she didn't turn on the light.
Tatum eased out the door and crept down the back stairs. She hated sneaking around like this. But what choice did she have? The siren meant a musher was on the final stretch before town. She hoped it would be her friend Beryl.
Outside, a ribbon of light flashed over the office of the town's newspaper, the Nome Nugget: minus twenty degrees Fahrenheit, without the windchill factor. Tatum tightened the hood of her parka, passing souvenir shops and old-style saloons on the plank sidewalk. Her feet ached with bone-numbing cold. She stomped them to get warm. Stars dabbed the frozen sky.
The famous wooden arch stretched over Front Street: end of iditarod sled dog race. Tying a mob of dogs together? Getting them to go in the same direction for a thousand miles? In the dead of winter? Everything that could go wrong usually did, and then some.
Someday I'll be out there running alongside Dad, Tatum thought. As soon as we're settled in one place, we'll start gathering dogs for two teams.
Her dad talked about getting rescue dogs from a shelter. "They don't have to be fast," he said. "Just strong, good-natured, healthy--and most important of all, able to laugh at my jokes."
Once, she'd told him that dog mushing felt like flying without wings. He'd smiled, hugging her. "That's how it's supposed to feel." She missed him even more at times like this.
Tatum wrapped her arms around herself, half frozen, and shuffled toward a bulky snowsuit leaning against the wooden arch. She recognized this year's champion, J.M., a young-looking giant. He'd crossed the finish line two days ago, winning in nine days, sixteen hours.
She thought it was amazing that he came out at any hour, day or night, to congratulate the teams as they finished. She knew he had to be utterly spent.
"A bit late to be out here, isn't it, missy?" J.M. asked, his fingers wrapped around a fat mug.
"I heard the siren," Tatum said. She caught a whiff of chicken soup. "I'm hoping it's Beryl."
"According to the last report, Beryl has passed through White Mountain," J.M. said. "I'm betting it's that rookie from Montana, Mack Gyldendal. He'll be one to watch in a few years."
Tatum had read about Mack. He'd turned eighteen the day before signing up for the race, and had driven by himself to Alaska in an old pickup. His dogs rode in a camperlike shell clamped onto the truck bed.
"Beryl should be close to Safety by now," J.M. put in.
Tatum sure hoped so.
Her dad had given her a guide that showed each checkpoint and the number of miles in between. Safety was the last checkpoint before Nome. Just a roadhouse stuck on a sea cliff. Sometimes tired dogs used to resting at the more than two dozen checkpoints between Anchorage and Nome refused to go through Safety without stopping. They just lay down.
Tatum couldn't imagine how terrible it would be for an exhausted musher who had already gone a thousand miles to watch himself slip in the standings that close to the finish line.
Tatum kept her feet moving, trying to jump-start her internal heater, thinking about last summer. Her dad had helped her get a job at a temporary camp set up on a glacier outside Juneau. She'd spent a month there working for Beryl. Tourists were flown to the top of the glacier, where they paid big bucks for sled dog rides.
Beryl had taught Tatum the most efficient way to harness the dogs, and how to make sure their booties were snug. "Not too tight," Beryl was quick to remind her. Tatum had fed and watered the dogs too.
At night Beryl worked over a small loom, sharing stories of her life in Alaska. She sold her handmade scarves to visitors. Larger pieces, like shawls and ceremonial capes, were commissioned by a gallery in Anchorage. Still, she had to scrimp to afford the Iditarod. The entry fee alone was four thousand dollars. That didn't include the cost of flying food and supplies to checkpoints before the race.
Tatum had listened, curled up with a mug of cocoa. Sometimes, in the middle of a story, Beryl would look up and ask, "Is haw the command for turning right or left?" Or, "What's a gangline?" After a while, Tatum got used to the pop quizzes.
Beryl was one tough woman. She spent winters alone in a log cabin without electricity or plumbing. "No running water," as Tatum's dad liked to say, "unless you run to get it."
Tatum thought Beryl's dogs were the smartest dogs in the world. Especially Bandit, the lead dog, Tatum's favorite. It takes a smart dog to understand a musher when he's shouting from the back of a sled. When business was slow, Beryl let Tatum take a team out by herself. Bandit always wagged her tail for Tatum, even when she messed up.
Beryl will be pushing hard to finish the last stretch, Tatum thought. She'd already handled everything the race had thrown at her; otherwise she wouldn't have made it this far. Lots of mushers just gave up.
Tatum turned when a checker and other race officials came out of the Sleeping Dog Café, hunched against the numbing cold. One was on a two-way radio, talking to an official out on the trail. A vet trailed behind them, looking like he hadn't slept in a month.
"Manor had to scratch," one official said. "Broke through overflow water on Norton Sound. Water soaked clean through his boots--froze solid on his feet."
"Glass slippers." J.M. shook his head. "The fool should've stopped to put on dry boots."
Tatum shivered from more than the cold.
"You know how it is," another official put in. "It's dark and forty below. You wait till the next checkpoint to sort it out."
"Then it's too late," J.M. added.
"A volunteer had to cut his boots off with an ax. Lucky he didn't lose any toes."
Tatum heard a team of dogs before they swung around the corner. "Beryl?" she asked, her hopes up.
"Nope, it's Mack," J.M. said.
She watched Mack jog in the snow next to the sled, keeping one hand on the driving bar. She tried not to show her disappointment. But she'd been hoping Beryl would finish in the top twenty--and pick up a few sponsors. A year's worth of free dog food would really help out.
Mack struggled to keep his sled going straight. The hood on his parka wasn't pulled all the way up. He swiped at icicles hanging from the hood's fur ruff.
Tatum counted eight dogs trotting in front, tails curled over backs. Two barked from inside the sled.
Most mushers started the race with sixteen dogs in harness--twice as many as they needed to cover a thousand miles. She doubted people outside Alaska thought much about it, but mushing wasn't like football or soccer. If a dog got sick or hurt and was taken out of the race, a musher couldn't substitute another player from the bench.
One of her Iditarod videos showed half a dozen dropped dogs corralled at a checkpoint. A vet took care of them until a volunteer pilot showed up. She'd laughed, watching the dogs sit patiently inside a bush plane. It was as if they flew all the time.
Mack must have dropped five or six dogs along the way, she thought. About average. Most mushers finished with between eight and twelve.
Mack shouted his bib number to an official and staggered under the famous burled arch.
J.M. slapped his shoulder, passing off the mug of soup. "Welcome to the club."
"Thanks, man," Mack said hoarsely.
Tatum congratulated him too.
"Eighteenth," an official said. "Nice job."
Tatum moved from foot to foot, watching the official jot down the time in, number of dogs in harness, and other stats. Mack scribbled his signature without taking off his gloves. Only one reporter came out for a picture.
Tatum didn't think it was right. Two days ago, when the first siren had blasted, the street had been jammed with fans and TV news crews, all cheering for J.M.
Now she watched Mack hug his dogs. "Good job, fella. How're you doing, girl?" He had a gash across his forehead, probably a run-in with a tree.
"Have you seen Beryl?" she asked.
Mack shook his head. "I've been running alone." He dug a bag from his sled and tossed out chunks of meat. The dogs inside the sled scrambled out to eat the frozen snack. Reflector tape on their harnesses winked in the dim streetlight.
"Two tired dogs is all," he told the vet.
The vet nodded, checking the dropped dogs first.
Tatum looked down the long, dark street. Her friend should have passed through Safety by now. It was only twenty miles away.