Read Across a Thousand Miles Online

Authors: Nadia Nichols

Across a Thousand Miles

Rebecca was in trouble

Mac was as sure of this as he'd ever been sure of anything. She was in terrible trouble somewhere up ahead.

Sled dog racing!
he fumed.
Whoever thought up such a ridiculous sport?
“All right,” he bellowed to his team. “Get up.” His voice had an edge to it that he'd never used with his dogs before. They struggled valiantly against the ferocious wind and swirling snow.

Where the hell was the summit? They must be getting close. Mac looked ahead into the stormy darkness. Was that a sled in front of him? He reached out, and his hand connected with the solid wood of the driving bow. “Hey,” he shouted. “Rebecca?”

The top line of the sled bag ripped open in the fierce wind, and a man sat up. “Rebecca's somewhere down below. She and her whole team got blown over. I don't know how far they fell.”

Mac stared at the bottomless void. She could be anywhere along this slope or she could have tumbled clear to the bottom. How in God's name would he ever find her in this whiteout?

He turned and plunged through the snow to the front of his team. He unhooked his lead dog from the gang line.

“Merlin, come!” he shouted over the howl of the wind. Then he turned his back on the dog and began a careful, step-by-step descent of the slope, panning his headlamp back and forth as he went.

He had to find Rebecca!


Dear Reader,

The Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race is without a doubt one of the toughest in the world—an epic journey covering one thousand miles of rugged wilderness terrain in temperatures that often reach minus sixty degrees Fahrenheit. It is the ultimate proving ground for mushers and their teams, and the cumulative effort of race volunteers, veterinarians, sponsors, handlers, families and friends. All of the characters in this story are fictional. I have taken a few liberties with both the race route and the rules, but have tried for the most part to give you, the reader, a sense of what it's like to travel down a long trail behind a team of incredible canine athletes. And a hint of the camaraderie that can develop between the mushers themselves.

The history of the north country is written in the paw prints of the intrepid sled dogs who hauled freight, food, medicine and mail over thousands of miles of winter trails in some of the worst conditions imaginable, for the benefit of mankind. We owe them our esteem.

Nadia Nichols

Across a Thousand Miles
Nadia Nichols



Command for dogs to get up and go. HIKE! may also be used.


The main part of the sled that sits over the runners. Used to carry gear, injured dogs, etc. Also called the BED.


Socks worn by dogs to protect paws against ice. Made from polar fleece and other high-tech material. Secured with Belcor strips.


Pivoting metal bar with two prongs that is attached between the stanchions at the rear of the BED. Musher stands on bar, which drives points into the snow and stops the sled.


Acts like a bumper or deflector. Curved piece protrudes from front of sled and prevents damage to sled.


The military version of PACK BOOTS. White rubber tops and bottoms.


Used to transport dogs. Most common is a wooden structure built onto the bed of the truck with individual sections for each dog or pair of dogs.


Sled handle with which the MUSHER steers the sled. Also called the HANDLE BOW or DRIVER'S BOW.


Any dog that cannot continue may be dropped at an official checkpoint or at an assigned dog-drop location.


Food and equipment, bagged in burlap or poly bags and shipped ahead to checkpoints. Bags cannot exceed sixty pounds. Straw (for dog bedding) must also be shipped ahead.


The main line. Dogs and sled are attached to this. May also be referred to as TOWLINE.


Command for leaders to turn right.


Webbed material, fits dogs snugly. TUGLINE and NECKLINE are attached to this.


Command for leaders to turn left.


Leader of the team. Intelligence and drive are important qualities. Teams can have one or two LEAD DOGS.


A person who drives a sled dog team.


Short line—no more than twelve inches— attached to HARNESS and GANGLINE. Keeps dogs in place.


Command to go by a potential distraction such as another team.


Felt-lined insulated boots. Usually rubber soled with leather or Cordura uppers.


Standing with one foot on the sled runner while pushing against the snow with the other.


These dogs run behind the LEAD DOGS. Sometimes called SWING DOGS.


The two skilike “feet” that slide along the snow. Usually made of wood and covered in plastic.


Extra line from sled to GANGLINE


Double-pronged metal hook. Can be pushed into the snow and used as an anchor to halt the dogs for short periods of time without tethering them.


Attached to the end of the GANGLINE. Can be tied to an object (tree) to hold the dogs when the snow is too soft to use SNOW HOOK.


The upright pieces that form the framework of the sled. They hold the runners to the rest of the sled.


Either the same as POINT DOGS or may refer to the two dogs running between the POINT DOGS and the WHEEL DOGS.


Refers to all dogs other than LEAD DOGS, POINT DOGS, SWING DOGS and WHEEL DOGS.


Connects the dog's harness to GANGLINE. WHEEL DOGS The two dogs running directly in front of the sled.


Command to stop the team.

To my beloved sled dogs, past and present, my heroes and my best friends, who have taken me on some of the greatest adventures of my life and who have always brought me safely home.


Now promise made as a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code…

Robert Service,
The Cremation of Sam McGee

his truck up Rebecca Reed's rutted dirt drive was a stranger, and her dogs let her know it long before she stepped out of the arctic entry to her small cabin and onto the front porch. She shrugged into her parka which had been hanging in the small pre-entry room as she watched his approach. The afternoon was chilly in spite of the sunlight, and the limbs of the aspen and willow were silvery and bare. Ravens were calling along the river and the wind played a lonesome song through the spruce behind the cabin. It was late autumn and the taste of snow was in the air.

He was tall. She could see that quite clearly as he climbed out of his truck. Even if his truck—with the dog box bolted to its rusting bed—hadn't given him away, his clothing would have. “Uh-oh. Another crazy dog driver,” she commented to Tuffy, the small black-and-tan Alaskan husky who had followed her onto the porch. In her prime, Tuffy had been Bruce's favorite lead dog, but she was old now, her muzzle graying, her movements stiff, and her eyes a bit cloudy. “I'll lay odds he's after a load of dog food and he'll want it real cheap,”
Rebecca said. “But how on earth did he get past my truck?” Tuffy looked at her quizzically and flagged her tail.

The stranger was dressed like a typical musher, and as he walked up the path toward the cabin, he paused for a moment to brush the worst of the mud off his drab-colored parka. His clothes were dog-eared, dog-chewed and dog-dirty. His insulated boots were patched with rubberized tool dip, his tawny shock of hair needed trimming, he was at least two days unshaven, and heaven only knew when he'd last had a decent bath. A bush dweller and a musher. A dangerous combination. He walked to the foot of the porch steps and paused there, looking up at her. “Hello,” he said with a nod and the faintest of grins. “Your truck was blocking the road and I moved it. Hope you don't mind, but the hood was left up as if something was wrong so I took a quick look.”

“I went out to get the mail yesterday and it stalled on me,” Rebecca explained. “The battery went dead, but it shouldn't have. It's fairly new.”

“Well, your battery was fine, but the ground-wire connection was loose. I tightened that up, and she started like a champ, so I moved her down the drive a ways into that little pullover near the blowdown. I'll drive her in for you if you like.”

Rebecca was taken aback. “No, thank you. I'll walk out and drive back. Thank you very much for fixing it. My wallet's inside. Hold on a moment, I'll get it.”

He grinned and shook his head. “No, you won't. I was glad to help and that was a real easy fix. The reason I'm here is that Fred Turner told me you sold dog food. He said you had the best prices in the Territory, so I thought I'd swing by your kennel on my way into Dawson.”

“I do sell dog food,” Rebecca said warily. “But it's
dog food. I don't sell the cheap stuff.”

“Good dog food's what I'm looking for,” he said. He rubbed the back of his neck and glanced around her yard. “You've got quite a few dogs yourself,” he said.

“Forty,” she said.

“Forty!” He glanced up at her, and she noticed that his eyes were exceptionally clear and bright, a shade of gray that hinted at blue or green, she couldn't tell which. “My name's Bill MacKenzie. Most folks call me Mac.”

“Rebecca Reed,” she said, with a curt nod. “How much food were you looking to buy?”

“Well, I only keep fourteen dogs myself, and I have plenty of chum salmon to carry them through the winter. I was thinking along the lines of forty bags, if you had that much to spare. That should see me through till spring.”

“I could sell you that much food,” Rebecca said, “but that truck of yours is only a half-ton, and it isn't even four-wheel drive. I doubt it could haul that heavy a load.”

“Well, I know it doesn't look like much,” Mac admitted. “But it's a tough truck, sure enough. She'll carry a ton of food, easy, four-wheel drive or no.”

“How far do you have to take it?”

“Thirty miles or so. Not far. Hell, if it would just hurry up and snow, I could ferry the food back with my dog team. It'd be good training for them.”

Rebecca smiled faintly. “It'll snow soon enough. You said you were on your way to Dawson, so I guess you'll be wanting to pick the food up on your way back to wherever it is you live?”

Mac nodded. “That'd be great. I'm bringing a dog to the veterinarian for a checkup. She's a good dog but
she's been off her feed for nearly a week. My appointment isn't until four, so I thought I'd spend the night in town and get an early start tomorrow. I could be here by eight-thirty, if that's all right with you.”

Rebecca shrugged. “Fine by me. I suppose if Fred Turner told you I sold dog food, he probably also told you that I don't extend credit. My husband started this business five years ago and he gave credit to every Tom, Dick, and Harry that came up the trail. Couldn't say no to anyone. When he died he left me in an awful mess. I'll sell you however much dog food you need, but you'll pay cash at pickup, same as everybody else. Twenty-five dollars a bag.” Rebecca narrowed her eyes as she spoke, aware that her words were hard and businesslike, and aware, too, that MacKenzie probably didn't have two dimes to rub together. Probably didn't even carry a checkbook or a credit card.

“I understand,” Mac said, nodding. “That's good business.” He patted the flat, frayed pocket of his parka and grinned again. “Not to worry about my finances,” he assured her. “I've got me a good little jag of cash, what with all the furs I've sold. I could pay you right now if you like.”

“You can pay at pickup,” Rebecca said. “You're a trapper?”

“I run a trapline up along Flat Creek.”

“Really.” Rebecca frowned. “How long have you been living out there?”

Mac paused, his eyes suddenly intent on searching the ground at his feet. The color in his windburned cheeks deepened. “Well, not that long,” he admitted. “Since early August. Actually my brother's the trapper and they were his furs, but he's gone to Fairbanks to finish his degree at the University of Alaska. He asked me if I'd
like to spend a winter in the Yukon, taking care of his dogs and running his trapline. The timing was perfect, so here I am.” Mac grinned again, raising his eyes to hers. “They're real good dogs. He ran the Yukon Quest with them last year and finished third. He told me to sell the furs and buy dog food for them.”

“Ah,” Rebecca said. “You're Brian MacKenzie's brother.”

“Yes. You know him?”

“He and my husband were friends.”

Mac nodded. “Well, he wants me to run his dogs this winter, so I expect I will. There's not much to it, really. He gave me a some lessons before he left, and I've been working with the dogs for a few months now. We should be able to do really well at some of these races. I'd kind of like to win the Percy DeWolf. It's only 210 miles and those dogs of my brother's will eat that up like it was nothing.”

“Had you ever driven a dog team before you came out here?” Rebecca asked.

“Nope. But I'm a quick study and my brother's a good teacher. What about you? Are you planning to run any races this season?”

Rebecca shrugged again. “Depends on the training, I guess, and my work schedule.” She straightened up and zipped her parka. “You'd better get headed for Dawson. It'll be pitch-dark soon, and I've still got chores to do.”

“Need any help? I could give you a ride out to your truck,” he offered.

“No, thanks. I can manage and I like the walk.” She started to turn away and then paused. “Be careful of that soft spot in the drive just before you get to the main road. Keep to the left of the deep ruts and you should be okay.”

Rebecca watched him turn and walk back toward his truck. Her eyes narrowed speculatively. “Early thirties,” she said to Tuffy, who had remained at her side. “See the way he walks? Definitely military. I should have guessed he was Brian's big brother when he told me his name.” She laughed softly, the first time she'd laughed in forever. “Win the Percy DeWolf? He's awfully arrogant, wouldn't you say, Tuffy, for a cheechako who probably doesn't know a dog harness from a doghouse!” Tuffy, as always, cheerfully agreed.

MacKenzie's truck started hard, with much grinding and groaning. It took several tries for him to turn around in Rebecca's yard, backing up into the irregular gaps between the spruce trees and the dog barn, and the dog yard fence and the cabin porch. At length, with a burst of black exhaust, he was gone, and the sound of the old truck's engine faded into silence.

Rebecca gazed beyond her late husband's dog yard, at the wall of rugged mountains that made up the Dawson Range.
Bruce Reed,
she thought,
I miss you like crazy and I hate you for leaving me here with a pack of forty sled dogs to look after and a business that's still in the red….

Her eyes stung with tears, and a sudden chill made her wrap her arms around herself as she stood on the cabin porch. Tuffy leaned her small but solid weight against Rebecca's leg. Rebecca sniffed and let one hand drop to stroke the dog's head. “I don't hate him, Tuffy,” she said softly. “I'm just mad at him, that's all. I want him back and he won't come, but that's not really his fault, is it?”

She might have stood there feeling sorry for herself indefinitely, but there were chores to do. There were dogs to feed, a wood box to fill, water to haul and, fi
nally, her own supper to cook. Tomorrow she had sled dogs to train, more chores to do, more wood and water to haul, and the guest cabin needed a good cleaning in preparation for the steady stream of clients that would inhabit it once the snow came, some flying in from as faraway as Japan to spend a week in the Yukon behind a team of dogs. Bruce's outfitting business, now in its fifth year, had gotten off to a slow start, but if Rebecca's figures were correct, this year it would actually turn a profit. Nearly all of the available dates were filled with clients seeking a northern adventure. More than half of them were repeats. Between the food sales, the guided trips, and the small sums she earned writing a weekly column for a Whitehorse newspaper, Rebecca, without her husband, was managing to scrape by.

As she mixed the dog food in the big galvanized washtubs, three of them set side to shoulder inside the cabin door, she caught herself thinking about Bill MacKenzie. “He'll never make it,” she said to Tuffy as she mixed the ground meat into the kibble and added copious quantities of warm water from the huge kettles steaming atop the woodstove. “He'll never last out the winter in Brian's shack up on the Flat. He may think he's Jeremiah Johnson, but he doesn't have a clue. This country will eat him up.” She shook her head and laughed for the second time that day. “Ex-military. He probably has a hard time tying his bootlaces without a drill sergeant instructing him.” She scooped the warm, soupy mix of meat, kibble, fat, vitamins and water into five-gallon buckets, hoisted two of them with hands that were callused and arms that were necessarily strong. She pushed the door open with a practiced kick of her booted toe, did likewise to the door from the arctic entry and
emerged from the cabin to the wolflike chorus of forty huskies howling for their dinner.

Halfway through her chores she paused for a moment, pushed a stray lock of hair from her forehead with the back of her wrist and shook her head. “Boy, I feel kind of sorry for his dogs.”


X rays to see what's going on,” the veterinarian said, removing his stethoscope and laying it on the side table. “From what you're telling me and from what I'm hearing inside her, it sounds like some sort of intestinal obstruction. Does she eat rocks?”

“Rocks?” Mac stared down at the small sled dog that he steadied in his arms. “Why would she do that?”

The veterinarian laughed. “You'd be amazed at the things we find in a sled dog's intestines. Rocks are the most common. They start out playing with them and then for some unfathomable reason they swallow them.”

“Rocks,” Mac said. He shook his head. “I guess there's a lot I need to learn about these dogs. Okay, so what happens now?”

“We'll knock her out, take some pictures and if there's an obstruction, we'll go ahead and surgically remove it. She'll have to stay overnight for observation, and I'd like to get some IV hydration into her.”

“And if you don't find anything?”

“I'll do some blood work and we'll take it from there. The other option is to keep dosing her with mineral oil the way you've been doing and hope the obstruction works its way through. But she's pretty dehydrated right now and she's lost a lot of condition. There's also the possibility of a rupture of the intestine, which would cause massive infection. It's up to you. If you want to wait a little longer…”

Mac shook his head. “Go ahead and do whatever needs to be done. I don't want to take any chances with her. Can I call here tonight and find out how she's doing?”

“We should know how we're going to proceed as soon as we see what the problem is. If you leave a number where you can be reached, I'll give you a call.”

“I'm staying at the Eldorado,” Mac said. He stroked the dog's head one final time before leaving her to the vet. “You're a good girl, Callie,” he said. “You'll feel better soon.” Sick as she was, Callie wagged her tail at his words and tried to follow him out of the examination room, which made him feel worse than ever. If someone had told him three months ago that he would be so attached to a pack of sled dogs, he would have laughed in disbelief, but abandoning Callie at the veterinarian's launched him into a state of high anxiety.

He paced the lobby at the Eldorado for nearly an hour before the phone call came. The X rays showed a large obstruction, probably a rock. They were commencing surgery and would phone again to let him know how things went. Another ninety anxious minutes later, he got word that the operation had been successful and that Callie was fine. “That rock was as big as a hen's egg,” the vet said. “I saved it for you.”

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