But without further ado, here is the story I wrote as a tribute to the mushers and the wonderful dogs. I didn't make the Iditarod the background but some of the lesser preliminary and leading-up-to-it races. I took a few small liberties but as much as possible I kept the atmosphere and the facts about mushing as accurate as I could! The cover is on the right and the info, blurb and an excerpt follow.
Blurb: Dylan is a loner, seeking to heal old wounds as he pursues a new-found dream of training a sled dog team and winning the big one, the Iditarod. He makes a difficult choice to rescue a stranger lost in a blizzard instead of seeking a win in a preliminary race. This choice and the results throw an unexpected but major change into his solitary life. Can he accept and adapt to these changes?
Grey must prove himself, pursuing his dream of seeing Alaska first hand and writing about the world of sled dog racing in such a powerful way it will jump start his chosen sports and feature writing career. Green and naive, he almost pays with his life for a bad decision. Can he learn and grow fast enough to survive in the unforgiving environment and overcome a rocky start with his new hero, musher Dylan Norgard, or has he sold that proverbial outhouse?
Excerpt: At a checkpoint, word has come in of a distress call. Dylan decides to attempt a rescue, not knowing who it is--another racer or just someone in trouble.
Someone produced one. He hitched the team and went inside to spread it out and figure which way he'd go. It was going to be like looking for a needle in a haystack, maybe a big needle in a small stack, but still no easy task. He checked his own compass and GPS unit, watered the dogs and then headed out. Sergei and Sasha both looked askance at him, as if sensing they were leaving the trail and the route the other teams were taking.
"It's okay, kids. We're going to make a detour here. If we get lucky, we might still be able to finish this race. If we don't...well, someone's life is worth more than a cup and a title, right?"
As if they understood, the two lead dogs leaned into the harness and swung into a smooth wolfish trot that ate up distance with the least possible waste of energy. Dylan trotted alongside, knowing he needed to spare the team all he could now because there was no way to know what they might encounter. A keen regret knifed through him--he'd been counting so much on a good finish in this race and he'd just thrown that away.
Am I a fool or a crazy, half-assed hero? Perhaps a bit of both, he decided.
* * * *Two hours of that steady trot got Dylan close to the GPS coordinates he'd received. The wind had started to blow, swirling the dry surface layer of snow as he made his cautious way down a ridge. A bad forest fire had ravaged the area the past summer. Now dead trees that had not completely burned lay like giant jackstraws, and holes left where some had blown over, pulling out their roots, lurked under the snow to trap a dog or tip a sled. It was ugly terrain.
Sasha seemed to have an inborn sense for hazards. She had slowed from the trot and zigzagged along, picking her way as daintily as a gymnast or a dancer. The rest of the dogs followed her lead, also showing cautious alertness. The ridge finally leveled off into a gentle bowl. Just before a stronger gust obscured his view, Dylan thought he saw a flash of color off to one side, color at variance with the uniform black and white of the landscape.
Damn it, will the fucking wind die for just a few seconds? He squinted through the spinning, whirling white, trying to find the spot, the color, once again. If there were other dogs, maybe his team would scent them. The wind kept shifting so it was hard to line up with the place where he thought he'd seen something that didn't belong.
He didn't speak, but sent the thought to Sasha. Sometimes she seemed to read his mind. Maybe she would this time. Find them, girl. If there's someone here, close, find them.
The lead pair halted, heads up, ears pointed like antennas. He knew their noses would be twitching, sampling the frigid air. Finally, Sasha stepped off again, moving faster now and in as direct a line as she could. Here the fallen logs were fewer and there seemed to be no holes or other booby traps. He didn't try to guide the team. If Sasha was onto something, he'd let her find it.
When the team stopped, Dylan almost tripped over the sled. For an instant, the blizzard let up and he saw it, a patch of red, just in front of Sasha and Sergei. A tent? It looked like one, but a damned small one. He edged along beside the team until he reached it. Yep, a miniscule half-tube of red nylon, stretched by several light plastic arches.
He knelt at the end. "Hallo. Anyone here?"
The next instant he rocked back on his heels as a very pale face suddenly appeared in the opening as a zipper slid down.
At first, he did not recognize the person who drew opened the tent and began to wiggle out, dragging a green sleeping bag with him.
"Oh, my God, oh, my God, I'm not going to die after all." A gloved hand grasped Dylan's and another reached out to Sasha. "Somebody heard; somebody came. I didn't think anyone would."
"Don't go bawling," Dylan said. "The tears'll freeze your eyes shut. Let's get you packed up and on board, and head back to civilization before this blizzard gets any worse."
"Mr. Norgard? Is it really you? I thought you were trying to win the race."
Dylan didn't know whether to laugh or cuss. It was that damn cheechako kid, the reporter. What in bloody fucking hell was he doing out here alone in the snow?
"Where's your team, your rig?"
The younger man was fumbling to try to collapse and fold up his tent. "I--a guy named Hoolihan was going to get me to the third checkpoint ahead of the racers. One of his lead dogs came up lame, and he said he was going to take it to a village a few miles back just off the way we'd come. He said he'd be back in two hours. After four or five, I figured he'd left me."
"Hoolihan. Might've known. That sorry son of a bitch. You paid him, of course."
The younger man nodded. "Yeah, I paid him. And he suckered me, didn't he?"
"Looks that way." Dylan took pity on the kid, and anxious to head back, slammed the tent into a bundle and jammed it and the sleeping bag into his sled bag. "Get on and hang on tight. We're going to be fighting the wind all the way back, but we'll make it, gods willing."
Almost before he gave the command, Sasha and Sergei turned and headed back the way they had come, following the tracks and runner-ruts that were rapidly filling with new and blowing snow. No trotting now, but they kept a steady pace, leaning into the harness to take the extra weight. Dylan muttered a prayer they'd make it back to the checkpoint. If they got that far, he'd forget about the race. There would be other races, but he only had one life, as did his unexpected passenger and each dog of his precious team.
The trip that had taken two hours coming out took five going back. Long before they got there, the dogs had to break drifts higher than their backs. The wind howled like an insane banshee and ripped at them, sucking off every bit of heat their bodies could produce. A time or two Dylan considered stopping and making a cold camp, but he didn't have enough to feed the whole team because he hadn't picked up his drop bag before he left the checkpoint--mistake on his part. It was make it or die...no other choice.
He stumbled now, pacing beside the sled, knowing that his added weight on the runners would be too much for the tiring team to handle. All at once he tripped, his leg twisting beneath him and he fell. A searing pain knifed up his right leg. Oh, shit, I've done it now.
Somehow, the dogs knew, stopping almost at once. He grabbed at the sled and tried to get up, but he couldn't. His leg was not going to bear his weight.
* * * *Grey wasn't asleep. He didn't dare go to sleep. Even as green as he was, he could tell the dogs were tiring and the non-existent trail had vanished beneath the windblown snow. He sensed Norgard staggering along beside the sled and started to offer to trade places for a while. Then the big man went down.
The dogs stopped, somehow sensing something was wrong. Grey unwound himself from the sled and scrambled to Norgard's side.
"You okay? What happened?"
He heard the big man draw a slow breath and let it out. "Think I broke my leg," he said. "Tripped over something. Tired..." His voice slurred with exhaustion and pain. He slumped against the sled, resting on his left knee.
Panic gripped Grey for a moment, but then he steadied himself. It's up to me now. I didn't come this far to die, to lose everything. Damn it, what do I need to do?
Later, he could not have told anyone how, but he managed to help Norgard onto the sled. The man probably outweighed him by seventy-five pounds, but together they did it. This was going to be a heavier load for the dogs, but somehow they'd handle it. He had to lean close to hear Norgard's mumbled words.
"Not too far, I don't think. The village--maybe another mile or two. Just trust Sasha. She'll get us there if it's possible. Hold on to the handles, but try not to put too much weight on the sled. Talk to 'em. Tell Sasha it's up to her."
Grey wasn't sure if Norgard passed out then or not, but he hoped the other man would stay on the sled. Norgard's gloved hands seem to lock onto the side rails at any rate.
Grey raised his voice so the dogs might hear him above the wind. "Okay, Sasha, you know what to do. Mush, girl."
Much to his amazement, the lead pair leaned into the harness again and started forward. They seemed just to be inching along, but they moved, and he had to keep walking to stay in his chosen spot at the back end of the sled. One foot after the other, slogging and struggling, but moving, moving, moving.
He held onto the handles like a lifeline, which indeed they were, but he didn't lean, didn't put any weight at all on the sled to add to the burden the weary team dragged through the snow, against the wind...
When the dogs finally stopped, Grey almost fell. It took a moment before he realized he could see dim lights through the dancing snowflakes. Lights? Then he heard voices.
"Hey, somebody's here. Team in." People seemed to come boiling out of the cold darkness to surround him.
"Hey, it's Norgard." Then the fact the musher was on the sled and a smaller figure stood beside it soaked in on them.
Grey tried to explain, but a haze wrapped around him as he felt himself sliding into a cold, silent, empty place. He sank onto the snow and everything went out like a quenched candle.