A Jessie Arnold Alaska Mystery
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"It was clear and cold. The aurora borealis painted palpitating color revels on the sky. Rosy waves of cold brilliancy swept across the zenith, while great coruscating bars of greenish white blotted out the stars. "
-- Jack London, "A Daughter of the Aurora"
Jessie Arnold halted her team and stomped in the snow hook to secure the sled, though as far as they had come and this late on a chill mid-January night there was little chance that her dogs would proceed without an encouraging word from their driver. They had traveled almost two hundred miles in two days and nights of regular alternating stages-four hours of travel, four hours of rest-with one longer, six-hour camp and a few short pauses. With an important distance race-- the Yukon Quest, from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Fairbanks, Alaska-- coming up the next month, she was scheduling her training to adjust both the dogs and herself to the extended rotations of running that would be required.
The Yukon Quest was Alaska's second most important distance race and Jessie had decided to try it for the first time, forgoing her usual participation in the Iditarod, for the two were very close together on the calendar and it would have been difficult to run them both.
She was looking forward to testing herself on a new race, and the Quest had established a reputation as the toughest sled dog race in the world, because of the extremes in temperature and terrain experienced by its participants. The route would take Jessie and the rest of the racers over more than a thousand miles of the most remote, inhospitable region of North America in the heart of winter, measuring their ability, raw courage, and sheer will with temperatures that often fell between -30° and -50°.
Jessie was particularly interested in traveling this race route because the relentless, demanding trail would trace the same trails used during the Alaskan and Yukon gold rushes, which had been natural and vital links for mail and freight mushers between communities during this era. The race would also be a challenge because the participants were only allowed to use one sled for the trip, like the mushers who had traveled the early mail routes and repaired their own sleds, if damaged. The Quest would therefore also test the self-sufficiency of each modem musher, leaving some cursing the unrepairable fragments and splinters of their transportation, often nursing their own injuries.
The trail Jessie and her team would run passed through fewer checkpoints than the Iditarod, with greater distances between them, and would include long stretches on the unforgiving Yukon River, the "Highway of the North," its icy surface often repeatedly broken and refrozen into a jumble of ice blocks the size of boxcars as it settled into winter immobility. Three extreme summits higher than any on the Iditarod would have to be crossed, and as she paused with her team on this training run, she was thinking about confronting the physical and mental challenges of this new race.
From his place at the front of the team, Tank, her lead dog, looked back as if wondering why they were stopping so close to home, then lay down in the snow. Two of the young dogs in the team remained on their feet for a minute or two, but, like the veterans, soon relaxed in their places, taking advantage of the pause to rest.
They're adapting fast, Jessie thought, generally pleased with the response of these twelve huskies to the extended training run they were about to complete. Opening the sled bag, she retrieved a large insulated container of warm water mixed with vitamins, electrolytes, and the food scraps left from a feeding at the last four-hour rest stop. When each dog had been given a metal pan of this tempting liquid, she watched to be sure they were all drinking thirstily, then took a bag of high-energy dog snacks and moved along the fine to give some to each, along with a minute or two of individual attention.
"Good dog, Bliss. Good girl. Hey, Sunny. You hungry, Wart? Oh ... just want that magic spot behind your ears scratched, yes? Okay. All right, Darryl, I'm coming. How about your other brother, Darryl? Here you go, pups." The two wheel dogs, who ran closest to the sled, were littermates named for the pair of Darryls on the old Bob Newhart television show, and were often referred to simply as One and Two. They looked so much alike it was hard to tell which was which, though Jessie knew that Darryl Two had darker ears and was more inclined to wolf his food. Very much a people dog, he greeted her with an affectionate lick on the hand as she presented his snack.
"Kisses for the pack leader? Thanks. Good job today, guys. Good dogs."
Replacing the supplies, she pulled the big fur mittens that reached almost to her elbows over a thinner pair of wool gloves that protected her fingers when the mittens weren't on. Nothing was as warm as fur, and they hung on an idiot string around the neck of her parka, where they would not be accidentally, disastrously lost. With the dark, which came in midafternoon this time of year, the temperature had dropped below zero and was still falling. Jessie was extremely careful to keep her hands warm, exposing them as little as necessary, but much of the work of caring for the dogs and herself could not be done in the clumsy mitts. Wiggling her fingers to encourage circulation, she left the team and turned to look around her.
The headlamp she wore revealed a trail well packed by the many mushers in the Knik area who used it for training, all of whom did their part to keep it groomed. Beyond her light the ghostly white trunks of the tall birches that lined the trail faded into the dark on either side, branches bereft of leaves until spring.
Pushing back the hood of the heavy down parka that hung to her knees, Jessie took a deep breath of the cold night air and sighed, placed her hands on the small of her back, and stretched to ease the weary ache between her shoulders. She knew a couple of mushers who had back problems and wondered how they stood the jouncing of the sled for over a thousand miles during a race, or the hundreds of everyday training miles, for that matter. Almost immediately she forgot her minor physical discomforts as she became aware of a spectacular light show above. Reaching up, she switched off the headlamp and waited for her night vision to return.
Low on the horizon she could see the glow of the city of Anchorage, but overhead was a completely different story. In the subzero temperature and clear air, hundreds of stars sparkled bright as diamonds against the inky blackness of the sky. Across them, swirling, shimmering curtains of the aurora borealis appeared to have snared their brilliance in a gauzy net, the brightest of the greenish white bands so vivid they almost obscured the glittering points of fight beyond them. Along the northern edges of the aurora were pale hints of rose that pulsed, grew, and spread, only to wane and slowly vanish as another part of the moving splendor increased in intensity.
Silent and motionless, Jessie stood gazing attentively upward as she almost held her breath in wonder. How many hundred times have I seen the northern lights? she mused. And I am still arrested and awed by them-- enthralled as a child at a fireworks show.
Watching the ribbons undulate and gradually elongate across the dark sky, she remembered seeing photographs from space probes of the rings of similar auroras above the poles of Jupiter and Saturn. It made her feel somehow closer to and more accepting of the two distant planets to know that they shared such extraordinary and inexplicable phenomena.
Time to go, she told herself. With one last look at the splendor of the heavens, she turned and went to fasten the sled bag and whistle up her team. When they were trotting rhythmically along the trail again, the reflective tape on their harnesses winking as it caught the fight from her headlamp, Jessie was glad to be almost home and began to consider what awaited her back at the cabin on Knik Road.
Her snug log cabin would be empty, but not cold, for Billy Steward, the dependable young handler who cared for the rest of her kennel in her absence, would have maintained at least a small fire in the potbellied stove to keep the house from freezing. A couple of chunks of wood would soon have its cast iron cheerfully glowing and would quickly spread comfortable warmth through the small living space. She had left enough of a large kettle of stew for one meal in the refrigerator, knowing she would be tired and in no mood to cook when she returned. The rest of the stew had gone with her on the training run, but after eating it for two days, she now found that, the idea of more did not appeal in the slightest to her growing appetite. Another lesson relearned, she realized, and began to mentally revise the menu she would prepare and have shipped to checkpoints for her first attempt at the Yukon Quest in February.
>From several years of running Alaska's most famous distance race, the Iditarod, between Anchorage and Nome, she had noticed that having a variety of foods perked up her appetite and gave her something to satisfy the hunger produced in the strenuous physical requirements of a thousand-mile race. Long days of racing with little rest drained mushers and exhausted their bodily reserves, necessitating a calorie-rich, highenergy diet. But an exhausted musher could lose all desire for food, or crave certain things she had forgotten to include in her supplies. It was too easy to concentrate on planning just the right food for the dogs and ignore the human athlete in the equation. A well-balanced, successful team required both.
So ... what do I want for dinner tonight? The thought made her tired, knowing that caring for her team would continue to demand her undivided attention when they reached the dog yard. Ready for a long rest, the dogs must still be watered and fed before they settled for the night. With the handler gone home for the night, it would be up to Jessie to feed and carefully check each animal for small injuries or strains, though this would also give her the opportunity to pet and congratulate each on a job well done. But with these chores ahead it would be at least an hour before she even went through the door of the cabin.
She wished that someone else would be there when she arrived. Not to care for the dogs-she liked doing that herself-but someone who had already put wood in the stove, someone with dinner waiting. More than anything, she wanted a shower and not to have to make decisions. It would be wonderful to have a plate--of anything but stew-put in front of her on the table when she was clean. How nice it would be to curl up warm and stationary on the big sofa by the stove, wrapped in an cozy afghan, with a mug of hot peppermint tea that someone else had made for her. However much she loved running with her dogs, she also loved coming home and relaxing into the comfortable fatigue that resulted from long, successful days on the trail.
"Oh, wouldn't it be loverly?" she sang out.
The dogs pricked up their ears at the sound of her voice and trotted a little faster down the trail.
Alex, where are you when I want you? she thought, feeling, not for the first time, the absence of her friend, housemate, and lover, Alaska State Trooper Alex Jensen, and wondering again just how long he would be away.
It had been after eight o'clock, at the end of a training run much like this, when she had arrived at home to find him tossing clothes hurriedly into a suitcase. just a week before Christmas.
"Hey, trooper, where're you off to?"
Tall and rawboned, he turned from his packing, handlebar mustache askew, fight hair with just a touch of silver at the temples standing up from where he had run his fingers through it., a grin replacing the frown on his face. Gathering her into a hug, he kissed each of her wind-burned cheeks and her chapped lips, tousled her short honey-blond curls, and looked down into her wide gray questioning eyes.
"You're home, but you're still cold. Must have been a lot of flying snow today," he said.
"Yeah, it was blowing a bit and piling up drifts out there. Where're you going? Out-of-town case?"
He stepped back to hold her at ann's length, his expression once again serious.
"Not this time. My mom called an hour ago, Jess. Dad had a stroke last night. He's in the hospital and I have to go down."
"Oh, no, Alex. How bad was it? Is he going to be all right?"
Jessie had never met Alex's parents, who lived on a ranch a few miles outside Salmon, Idaho, but she had grown quite fond of Keara Lacey Jensen through frequent letters and phone calls. For Alex's father she felt a warmth and respect, gleaned mainly from his son's affectionate comments, for, after a reserved greeting., the reticent Nels Jensen invariably passed the phone to his more loquacious wife.
"It was evidently pretty bad. They medevaced him up to the big hospital in Missoula and the doctors say they won't know much for a few days yet. For now it's one of those waitand-see things."
"How's your mom?"
"Mom's doing okay, I guess, considering, but she sounded frightened and sort of fragile. I've never heard her sound like she was just barely hanging on. Wish it wouldn't take me till sometime tomorrow to get there."
"Shall I come with you?"
"There just isn't time, Jess. Besides, you need to be here to take care of the dogs and get ready for the race. I'll see how things are and let you know, okay?"
"Sure. Whatever works best. I could come later, if you need me."
"What can I do to help, then? When does your plane leave?"
"I have a reservation on the red-eye to Seattle, where I can catch a Horizon flight to Missoula at six-thirty tomorrow morning."
"I'll drive you in. just let me grab a shower and something to eat. There's time, right?"
"You won't have to, Jess. Caswell's already on his way here. I didn't know for sure when you'd be home, so I called him as soon as I'd made the reservations. Don't know how long I'll be gone, so I've got to stop by the office and get the paperwork on my cases in some kind of order to turn over to Becker. He and Ivan are meeting me there."
Jessie knew that if Ivan Swift , the post commander, was showing up, it definitely meant Alex might be gone for quite some time. Jessie, typically, swung into action mode.
"Okay. What else can I do? Have you had dinner?"
"Yeah, I ate a little, but I'm not really hungry. There's a roast chicken keeping warm for you in the oven. You could make me a couple of sandwiches to take on the plane-mayo, mustard, maybe some of that sharp cheddar. I can't eat that plastic food."
"You've got it. What else?"
"An orange? Maybe a couple of your Snickers." He smiled, knowing Jessie bought Snickers by the box as high-energy trail food and that they both ate oranges for the vitamin C.
"There's a load of laundry in the drier. You could fold it when it's dry. I'll need to pack some of it. Socks. Long underwear. Won't be any warmer there than here."
In less than an hour fellow trooper Ben Caswell had come hurrying into the cabin, said, "No, thanks," to a drumstick, and efficiently swept up Jensen and his duffel.
"I'll call you when I get there," Alex told her at the door. "As soon as I know ... whatever."
"Let me know if you need anything. Give your mom my love."
"You know I will."
Looking up at his face after he kissed her good-bye, she assessed the distraction in his eyes, the lines of concern that framed the mouth below his handlebar mustache, and laid a palm on his cheek.
"I'll be here. Better call me late. I'll be running the mutts almost every day."
His focus shifted to her and he smiled. "Do good work, musher. That race is coming up fast. I love you."
She nodded. ""Too."
He turned, clattered down the front steps, and climbed into his friend's waiting pickup, which was quickly swallowed up in the dark as it turned onto the road from the long driveway. Red taillights flashed momentarily between distant tree trunks and he was gone.
Jessie had closed the door, enveloped by a silence that seemed loud after the clamor of unexpected departure.
On this late evening in January, when Alex had been in Idaho almost three weeks, Jessie changed her mind and went into her empty cabin assoon as she arrived. She pulled up by the front steps, stomped in the snow hook, and dashed inside, where she added wood to the still-glowing coals in the stove and left it to warm the house while she went back out to the yard to take care of her team.
More than an hour later she took a long steaming shower, ate a cold tuna sandwich with a hot bowl of canned tomato soup, went directly to bed, and slept for eight hours, uninterrupted, except once when she woke to hear several of her dogs barking in the yard.
For several nights a moose had wandered close to the cabin, exciting the dogs and provoking them to vocalize loudly at what their tethers prevented them from chasing. Jessie had grinned to herself at the tracks she found in the snow, for the huge ungulate seemed to exhibit a sense of humor in coming
exactly close enough to cause a ruckus without actually challenging so many canines. Its passing had left large divided hoofprints at the bottom of holes in the deep snow as it moved easily around the circumference of the yard on long gangly legs, munching on the willows that grew by the drive, even lying down to rest in a stand of birch and spruce to the north, pointedly ignoring the protests of the restless dogs.
Now, as she heard them barking again, Jessie smiled drowsily, rolled onto her left side, and drifted back to sleep in the middle of the big brass bed she usually shared with Alex. There would undoubtedly be more tracks to be found in the morning, but they were really nothing to worry about. A bear might have been different, for some bears would kill and eat dogs, especially those that could not escape. But, thankfully, all the bears, plump from a long summer banquet, were elsewhere, tucked up securely into their dens, keeping warm in their heavy fur, contentedly slumbering the winter away.
Though the dogs barked once or twice after that, Jessie did not wake again. She was unaware that, after the cabin had been dark for over an hour, a dark figure had slipped stealthily into the dog yard from between two large spruce trees; that he had watched Jessie come home from her training run, care for her dogs, and go inside. Walking slowly between the strawfilled dog boxes, he picked one, knelt, and silenced the dog by petting its head, rubbing its ears, and speaking in a low voice.
When he stood up and moved on to another, the first dog followed to where its tether should have stopped it, but found that it was unexpectedly free of restraint. It stopped, not used to being without impediment, then moved on, pursuing the man. When it found a running mate was also loose, the two decided it was time to play, and enthusiastically accompanied the provider of their liberty as he quietly made his way out of the yard and down the long driveway to Knik Road. Reaching the truck he had parked a bend or two away, they willingly jumped up into the cab at his invitation and rode away with him into the night.
"No. I won't do that. Who do you think you're talking to? And they would find out-somehow. I have to sign the papers that say those dogs can..."
"You'll do it. I'll destroy you if you don't... and here's how."
The voice behind the threat was low, but sharp, cold, and as full of menace as the handsome face of the man who made it. The grin that bared his perfect teeth held no hint of humor as he flipped a yellowed newspaper clipping onto the desk behind which his victim sat angrily protesting.
The sight of the headline and picture included in the article caught the man for whom it was intended like a blow. His anger leaked away like the air from a punctured balloon, leaving him pale and sweaty, feeling as if something slimy had landed on the desk in front of him.
"Oh, Jesus. Where the hell--"
"Shut it, dummy, and listen up. The goddamned things move-- don't they?"
Almost beyond listening, the seated man had recoiled in his chair and was glancing desperately around the room for an escape that didn't exist, mentally scrabbling for safety.
The ominous tone of the question yanked him back to the edge of panic. He shrank into the chair, focused his horror on the yellowing scrap of newsprint, and panted out an answer without looking up.
"Yes. They can, if they're not placed right."
"So, they'll just think this one moved when they can't find it. They won't know the difference. Pretty good chance of that, huh? Still, they'll be unwilling to let it slide through, right? Now, be a good boy."
"Yes ... they'll expect some of them to move, so they'll look thoroughly-carefully. If they can't find it anywhere, they'll have to... Where... how did you get this?"
The shaking finger he pointed at the clipping and its accompanying photograph was ignored by his assailant, who placed both hands on the desk, leaned forward until his face was less than a foot away, and hissed, "And you'll fix it so you do the searching when necessary, won't you? Then you can find it. You can report it. By the time somebody else takes a look, it'll be too damn late, won't it?"
"Goddammit, you son of a bitch, I don't care how. You'll just do it, right?"
"But why? And why me?"
"You don't need to know why. And it's you because I have... this, you pervert. Because I say so. Right?"
Strangled by frustration and fear, his resignation was expelled on a breath, barely above a whisper.
"If you screw up--"
There was silence, the soft sound of a door closing gently, and when he looked up the office was empty. The repugnant newspaper clipping lay where it had been tossed on the desk.
He did not look at it directly again, but after a minute or two struck a match taken from a desk drawer and held it to one corner of the paper. Obsessed with the burning, he watched it blacken and curl until it scorched his fingers, forcing him to stomp out the last scrap where it had fallen to the floor, leaving a narrow black scorch on his office carpet.
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