It was almost midnight when Dillon pulled into Sommer Kennels. He shut off the Land Cruiser's engine and Claire's head came up. She frowned as if disoriented, then yawned wide.
"Sorry. I must have dozed off."
Dillon didn't see a reason to inform her she'd begun snoring ten minutes after he opened his big mouth about being a cop. He was grateful she hadn't asked the questions he saw in her face at the revelation. "Sleep while you can," he said. "There won't be much time for it on the trail."
"So I hear. Thanks." She fumbled the door open, muttered good night, and headed for the cabin.
In less than thirty hours, they'd repeat the hundred-mile drive to Anchorage with loaded dog trucks for the start of the race. Dillon planned to use the Warren truck again to transport his team. Brian had agreed to be his handler for both the ceremonial start in Anchorage Saturday morning and the restart in Willow Sunday afternoon. At that point, the mushers and their teams would be on official race time. Run, rest, feed, check feet, run, rest...an endless cycle, until time ceased to matter and reality shifted.
Cold. Exhaustion. Incredible beauty, numbing routine, and the dogs. Always the dogs. He wouldn't be here if not for them. They didn't ask questions. Didn't judge. Trusted unconditionally.
They kept him sober.
Instead of going to the cookhouse, he went to the kennel yard. He was tempted to take a small team out for a night run but decided against it. The danger of an injury this close to the race was too risky. Bonnie dozed on a bed of straw in front of her shelter, her tail curled over her nose for warmth. Her ears came up at his approach. He knelt beside her and massaged her shoulders.
"Are you ready to do this again?" he asked, keeping his voice low.
She rolled onto her back for a belly rub. Dillon obliged. This would be her second Iditarod with him, her fourth overall. She used to belong to a man who wandered into the Bering West three years ago in need of money. Packing it in, he said, couldn't afford to keep his kennel anymore, broke his heart to have to sell his dogs. Dillon bought Bonnie and Clyde and got the story behind their names.
The rest of his Iditarod team this year came from Frank Johnson's kennel. Frank had been tending bar at the Bering West that day. He bought Guy more out of sympathy for the dog than charity toward the distraught man. "A dog that dopey needs all the sympathy it can get," Frank reasoned. To everybody's surprise, what the hound lacked in smarts he made up for in pulling power.
Dillon went to each member of his team, talked to them, gave them massages and belly rubs. Elliot popped to his feet and shook, ready to go. Dillon chuckled. "Easy, little man. It's not time yet."
It didn't take the dogs long to settle back to sleep, the rookies taking their cue from the veterans. But Dillon knew there'd be no sleep for him this night. Sleep left him vulnerable. The only way to insure the past stayed where it belonged was to occupy his mind with the present. He still had harnesses to mend. He'd start there.
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