Julie tugged on the clunky sled stuck on yet another pressure ridge, her muscles aching from the long, grueling hours. While her sled was lighter than the ones the other team members handled, the extra length that the rafts strapped to the bottom added made some ridges exponentially difficult to navigate. The last five days since that first night on the ice, the towering obstacles had plagued the expedition. Traversing the boulder-sized blocks of ice and snow all tumbled together like a forgotten pile of children’s building blocks not only exhausted them all, dogs included, but it slowed them down.
The first few days, the team had approached each ridge with gusto. Now, though, tensions soared. With the travel slowed to a crawl, the race to the North Pole was more of a plod.
The only upside of the long, hard days was the collapse into the tent at night. She and the Rebels had settled into an easy camaraderie, joking through dinner before they all fell into their sleeping bags, practically snoring before their heads hit the pillows. On the nights Sunny didn’t get the coveted middle spot, Julie found herself pressed against Gunnar’s side. Sure, layers and layers of fabric separated them, but his solid presence and warmth filled her with a jubilation she hadn’t had since high school.
She glanced down at where Gunnar and Mason waited for her, then gave the sled another yank. Working with the team solidified her earlier revelation that she didn’t want to be so alone anymore. Having others to lean on, even when their attitudes turned grumpy, made her realize just how empty she’d let her emotional tank get. After her father’s death the year before, she’d just kind of tucked her head to the wind and plunged forward. Maybe if she had lifted her head and searched the horizon for others eager to come alongside her, she wouldn’t have ended up bent low to the ground with the weight of loneliness upon her.
When they arrived at the checkpoint later that evening—if they made it—she owed Saylor a big hug. Her cousin had tried to get through to Julie. She’d just been too stubborn and unwilling to burden anyone with her emotions. Maybe the time had come for her to sell the place she and her father had built in the wilderness between Valdez and Glenallen and relocate to a more populated area.
The sled lurched as it broke from the ice wall it had wedged against. Julie stumbled, her feet slipping on the loose snow. Catching herself on an ice boulder beside her, she huffed out a breath to steady her shaking hands. She needed to stay focused. There wouldn’t be a future to contemplate if she tumbled down this ridge and died.
“You okay?” Gunnar hollered from the bottom where he paced, ready to jump into action if needed.
She waved, then picked her next step down the jumbled mess.
“Okay, boys, let’s get this sled down. I’m ready to get to the checkpoint.” She talked to the four dogs hooked to the sled to help her. “Easy now. Hup.”
The dogs pulled on the leads, dragging the sled on the path between the ice. Having her entire team hooked up on these ridges just caused tangles and fights. Keeping to her two leads and the wheel dogs meant she had enough brute force to move the sled easily, without the others getting in the way. The arrangement worked but meant more time hooking and unhooking her team on each ridge she came to.
The sled slammed into another low wall of ice and jerked the dogs to a halt. She wanted to cry. Just throw herself over the sled and have a good wail. Exhaustion would do that to a person. Since it wouldn’t do a lick of good, she climbed over the front of the sled to see what it was hung up on.
“Let’s go!” Mason yelled up, his frustration not helping the situation any.
Angry words bubbled up like a bottle of soda shook hard. They wouldn’t do anything but add more tension, so she swallowed them down. Gunnar crossed his arms and glared at Mason. Mason threw up his hands in apology and stomped off to his sled. Julie got his impatience. Sunny and Clark had gone ahead to scout, so Mason was stuck here waiting on Julie.
Waiting sucked in the Arctic. It gave the cold time to seep into the layers of clothes as the body stopped producing heat with the inactivity. From the way Mason marched around his sled, his arms swinging and legs lifted high, this latest stall in progress froze him. Yet, here she was, unzipping her coat another inch to keep herself from sweating with exertion.
“Want help?” Gunnar called up.
“No, I can get it” She signaled him to stay put.
By the time he climbed the hill, she’d probably have the stupid sled unstuck. The front corner wedged against a block of ice the size of a large pumpkin. It shouldn’t be too hard to push free. Placing her feet on the sled, she squeezed her body between the ice and gear to get more leverage. She pressed hard on the runners, groaning with the strain against her already tired muscles.
“Hup! Hup!” Her command to the dogs faltered from her mouth as the sled jolted free and careened over the ice too fast for her to control.
A shrill scream from the dogs had black spots dancing before Julie’s eyes. She leaped for the sled as it raced past her. Frantic yipping curdled fear in her belly. Snagging the back of the sled, she pulled with all her might. Her mittens couldn’t wrap around the material, and the sled slipped in her grip. She ripped her mittens off with her teeth so she only wore her glove liners and caught it in a tighter hold.
Each inch the sled slipped, her dogs’ yips of pain spiked to cries of agony. She braced her feet on the ice the sled had been stuck on, praying that her muscles wouldn’t give out. The sled’s nose tipped lower, yanking at her muscles.
“No.” She roared at the searing pain in her arms and the betrayal of the stupid sled suddenly eager to get off the ridge.
She couldn’t. Her fingers were slipping. Her guttural growl filled her ears as she put all her strength into leaning back. Muscles shaking, the sled edged backward. Just a little more and the dogs could get free.
Her feet slipped off their perch, crashing her to the ground and knocking the air out of her. She scrambled to grab the sled as terrified screams filled the air. Tears blurred her vision. She’d killed her dogs.
The sled jerked to a stop.
Julie blinked in confusion.
“Hurry, Jules.” Gunnar’s strained voice shook her into action.
She scrambled over the ice wall the sled had been squeezing through. The sled pinned her father’s favorite dog, Pax’s, back end to the ground. He whined and scratched his front paws at the snow, trying to get away. Mason stumbled up the ice and leaned his shoulder on the opposite side of the sled from Gunnar just as Julie crawled between their legs to the dog.
“Okay. We lift on three. Jules, slide Pax away.” Veins popped out of Gunnar’s forehead with the strain of holding the sled still.
“Wait. Let me unhook him.” She cut the neckline and tugline from the harness, then worked her arms around Pax’s trembling body. “Okay.”