I’m fifteen miles out of town when Katie calls. Hadn’t wanted to be, because today’s her morning to help out at the school, but Ian Duncan’s generator is on the fritz, and I need to get it fixed as fast as possible. His wife is diabetic, and they’re far enough out that they lose power if a caribou farts in the wrong direction. My cell phone is kind of iffy too, on account of sun flares right now, so she has to radio Ian to talk to me.
When he comes out to tell me, my gut drops. There’s only one reason she gets in touch with me at a job. I go in and find out she’s already called Jack, which is good news, an account of Jack’s a spotter for Northwest Territories Wildlife Conservation. He monitors radio tags for NTWC so he can plot out the migration route of whatever they’re looking at any particular year. As a huge personal favor, he also sometimes tracks McQueen, Diefenbaker’s paw-picked successor, who has his very own collar with transmitter.
“Okay,” I tell her. “Okay. That’s good. I got maybe another fifteen, twenty minutes here. Half hour, tops. I’ll call you back before I leave.”
Ian tries to tell me to go now, but I shrug him off. Jack won’t have the position for a little while yet, and anyway, the sooner I get his generator fixed, sooner I can stop worrying about it. I don’t want to come out here again before spring if I can avoid it. With Ian’s help, I finish in twenty minutes, and when I radio Katie back, she has coordinates for me.
“Don’t worry about it,” I say, before Ian can pull out a map. “I know where that is.”
“You want to borrow my team?”
That makes me stop for a minute. My snowmobile is faster, but it’s loud. Really loud. If I have to go home for my own team, I’ll lose at least a couple of hours, maybe more.
“Yeah. Yeah, that’d be good,” I say.
It’s all I can do not to bounce off the barn ceiling when we go out there. I want to be gone a half hour ago, but this way is faster, more certain. Ian’s dogs know McQueen, so they’ll be able to track him better than I can. Ian’s wife, Amanda, brings out food and a thermos of hot chocolate. Ian tosses in a few pieces of pemmican, just to be on the safe side.
“After you find him, you can stay here for the night,” Ian tells me, just before I head out. He’s being optimistic. Chances are, we’ll be camping tonight and coming back tomorrow for breakfast or lunch. That’s my version of optimistic, and it’s the best I got, because I been down this road a few too many times lately.
Ian’s team is a good one. He’s been training them up to run the Iditarod, and I think he has a pretty good shot at winning next year. We make good time with Betty in the lead. Ian swears she’s a genius at finding the best snow to run on, and I believe him. Our first rest break, I pull out my GPS to check our position, and we’re farther than I thought we’d be. Maybe Ian wasn’t too far off the mark after all, inviting us to stay the night.
I’m putting the GPS away when I hear McQueen in the distance, and I set the team running again, thanking whoever might be listening for letting me catch a break this once. We get maybe half a mile before McQueen shows up, barking like crazy when he sees me.
Before he gets to the sled, I yell out, “Where’s Ben?”
McQueen stops on a dime and races off the way he came. Betty chases after him on her own, and I wonder if maybe those two have a thing on the side. Wouldn’t surprise me none. McQueen’s a lot like his dad used to be. Dief’s too old for that now, but he still remembers. I can see it in the way he’ll look at a young bitch passing by.
We go another mile or so and find McQueen trying to herd Ben in my direction. He’s a good twelve miles out of town, and I’ll be damned if I know how he can move so fast in the snow.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Diefenbaker,” he says. “The cabin is in this direction.”
Ben hasn’t seen me yet, hasn’t even figured out there’s a dog team twenty feet from him. He’s wearing his serge and Stetson, and thank god he’s got his wool coat and gloves on, but it’s not enough protection. Temperature’s starting to drop, and I need to make sure he’s warm for the trip back.
I get off the sled slowly. If I startle him —
No. I don’t want to think about what will happen if I startle him.
“Ben?” He doesn’t look up right away. I call a little louder, “Hey, Ben?”
That gets his attention. His eyes are blank when they meet mine, and I can see him trying to connect a name to my face.
“Yes?” He’s polite, doesn’t admit to anything other than his name. He can’t figure out how I know him, and he’s too stubborn and afraid to say he doesn’t remember me.
“It’s getting cold out.” I have to step carefully now. If I try to push too hard too fast, he’ll just keep walking, and I’ll have to tackle him and tie him to the sled to get him home. I hate doing that, because it scares the hell out of him. Plus which, he’ll still be screaming and crying by the time we get back to Ian’s homestead, and that’s something no one wants.
Ben cocks his head and sniffs the wind. “You’re right. It is.”
“Maybe we should get inside, huh?” I stop maybe ten feet away from him. McQueen whines a little, looking back and forth between the two of us.
“Why yes, Diefenbaker,” he says. “I believe you’re right. Snow is definitely on the way.” He looks at me, and for a quick second, I think he recognizes me, but then it’s gone again. “It would be advisable to seek shelter. My cabin is just over the next hill.”
It’s not. The cabin he’s thinking of is five hundred miles west, and all that’s left are a few logs. He sold the land six years ago, after I moved up here for good, which means this next bit is a little tricky.
“Sounds good, Ben.” I use his name again to remind him I know him.
“Come along, then.” He turns to go, ignoring that he’s standing in a foot of snow. I can’t figure out why he never gets frostbite. Those riding boots of his were never meant for this kind of abuse.
“Hey, you got snowshoes?” I ask the question all casual-like, because I’m appealing to his common sense. He don’t know who I am or who McQueen is, but he’s still got that bone-deep knowledge of the north. Usually, a question like that is enough to make him stop and think.
He looks down at his feet and then up at me. “Er — no. I don’t. Do you?”
Ian tried to give me a pair before I left, but I turned ’em down. Last thing I want is Ben running with the sled, so I put a sad face on and say, “Afraid not.” I frown down at the sled for a minute. “But you know, if we move stuff around, you could ride real easy.”
Ben doesn’t like that. He doesn’t like it one bit. Before he can say no, though, McQueen barks once. It’s a sharp, no-nonsense kind of bark, and Ben listens to him.
“Very well.” I hold back on the sigh of relief and remind myself to give McQueen a soup bone tomorrow by way of thanks. Ben trudges over and starts rearranging the sled with me. Doesn’t take too long, not with the two of us working together on it.
“Hop in, Ben.” I use his name a lot, because it doesn’t take much for him to forget, especially when he’s cold and hungry.
He lifts his left foot and stops. Looks at me. “I’m rather good at this. Perhaps I could drive?”
Only in your dreams, Ben. Out loud, I say, “Betty’s kind of picky about who’s behind her.”
Ben nods, like he figured that all along. I know better, though. I can see the disappointment in his eyes. It won’t be there long. Day after tomorrow, when Ben’s had a chance to thaw out from today’s walk, him and me will take our team out, and I’ll let him drive then. McQueen’s lead dog for our sled, and he knows how to run when Ben’s back there.
Once he’s tucked in good and safe under a couple of layers of blankets and chewing a piece of pemmican, we set off in the direction he thinks his cabin is. We’ll go that route for a mile or so, and then I’ll start turning Betty back to home. We got plenty of time to get back to Ian’s place, even with the detour, and I’m glad of that. I’m even gladder that he’s gonna let us bunk down there for the night. Tomorrow, I’ll take Ben home, and once he’s in the bathtub, me and Katie, our next-door neighbor, will see how the hell he managed to slip out of the house this time.
I keep hoping the Alzheimer’s will kill his ability to figure shit out — like how to pick a lock — but it never does. Instead, it just keeps taking people away from Ben. After our friends and Maggie, I was the next to go, and then Vecchio. Lately, I hear him talking to his dad, like Bob Fraser’s still around, and that about kills me, knowing Ben’s as lonely now as he was before he first went to Chicago on the trail of his father’s killers.