Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

Busted Axle Road
a novel by
Wes Boyd
Copyright ©1993, ©2001, ©2007, ©2013

Chapter 4

Mark Gravengood got home early Tuesday evening. The lights were still on out in the shop, so it was pretty clear that Jackie was out there, working on a sign.

It proved to be the case. The computerized vinyl cutter was singing as he walked in the door. "What’s the situation on supper?" he asked.

"At least an hour," his tall, brunette wife said, "Unless you want to make it yourself. Clark Plywood has been dinking around on this sign for their show booth for two months, and now they want it yesterday."

"Doesn’t surprise me," Mark said. "Anything for me?"

"You want to call Frank Matson. He’s getting some kind of goofy intercept when he boots up his 8086. Something to do with the config.sys file."

"Probably nothing major," Mark said thoughtfully. "Home computer, or at the bank?"

"Home computer, he wants you to call him this evening," Jackie said.

"Well, nuts," Mark said. "If I go over to Point Drive and screw around for an hour, it’ll be too dark to take a run. I’ll call him after supper."

"I ought to go with you," Jackie commented, "But I’ve got to get this sign done and over to the Clark office, so they can take it to Camden."

"Well, all right," Mark said. "I’ll see you in an hour or so." He went into the house, took off the phone company uniform, and pulled on his sweats. It was kind of muddy to be running up the trail, but it was muddy going up the road, too.

Mark was not a fanatic jogger, one who had to get his miles in, no matter what the weather. Neither was Jackie, for that matter; in fact, both disliked it, but saw it as a necessary evil, at best. Perhaps five years before, on a trail work trip, they had come to realize they weren’t in the shape that they once were.

It hadn’t taken much to see the problem. Mark’s work was pretty sedentary, mostly with a test kit or a soldering iron. With the exception of backpacking and trail work, his avocations were pretty sedentary, too. He loved amateur astronomy; he’d been a pilot for many years, but that was a sit-down thing and only rarely brought the heart rate up, although when it did it was a corker. Since home computers had started to make their appearance in Spearfish Lake, he had been recognized as the local resident expert, even though he saw his sales and service business mostly as a hobby, too. Jackie’s sign business, along with flying and astronomy and a little bit of computers, too, didn’t exactly qualify as a high-exercise lifestyle. It was obvious that they needed to make a conscious effort to keep in shape, and jogging seemed to be the most time-efficient way of doing it, if not the most enjoyable.

Mark went out onto the porch of the old stone farmhouse he and Jackie had rebuilt, and did a little stretching before he lazily started down the airstrip in back of the barn, heading in the direction of the trail. There was one thing to be said for jogging slowly, mindlessly through the woods: it gave him a chance to think.

The conversation about dogsled racing at the Spearfish Lake Café the week before had kept coming back to him. The thought of running a dog team appealed to him – why, he wasn’t sure, but one thing had been clear: it was time for something new, and dog sledding certainly was a candidate.

He assessed the airstrip as he jogged down the length of it. It was firming up nicely, and given a couple of warm, windy days, it could be used again. They tried to avoid putting ruts in it during spring thaw, but that was pretty much over, now. He’d taken the skis off Rocinante over the weekend and put the wheels back on; it wouldn’t be much longer, now.

At the far end of the airstrip, he turned onto the trail. There weren’t even any real challenges left that involved the trail, he thought.

Back when he and Jackie had been on their "honeymoon" – it had lasted eight months and ended, rather than started, with their getting married – they had spent a week doing trail maintenance on the Appalachian Trail. The crew leader had been an interesting old guy from Michigan named Vince, and they’d had a good time. If Vince had seemed old to them back in 1971, then he’d been positively the ancient of days when he’d knocked on their door ten years later. It had been mutual surprise all around that they remembered each other after introductions, and it opened the door for what Vince had really wanted: there was a new trail being constructed between New York and North Dakota, called the North Country Trail. Mark and Jackie’s farm occupied a critical half mile separating two sections of state forest land. Not only had Vince walked away with permission for the trail to cross Mark and Jackie’s property, he’d gotten their agreement to build and maintain a seven-mile segment of it.

Mark had remembered Vince as a purist. He didn’t even like to use chain saws if he didn’t have to, so he’d waited until Vince’s back was turned before he took the tractor and mower out to the trail. In fact, over the years, Mark and the tractor had built about twenty-two miles of trail, but he let others do most of the maintenance. There’d been several bridges to build, but as a phone man, Mark not only had access to telephone poles but the equipment to handle them, so that hadn’t proved to be a problem. Nowadays, about all he had to do with the trail was run the tractor and mower along several miles of it two or three times a summer.

And that was kind of symbolic of the whole problem, Mark thought as he jogged through the woods: he was the kind of person who needed to stay busy and needed another new challenge every few years or he began to get stale.

As he jogged along he sort of catalogued the last few years. There’d been rebuilding the house and barn from an abandoned wreck, then doing the mirror for the sixteen-inch telescope. Then there’d been the 1-26 glider, another wreck-rebuilding job. Then the trail, then the new observatory. By the time that last one came along, he’d already done two mirrors and didn’t want to take on another, so he’d just bought the parts for the fourteen-and-a-half-inch Cassegrain. Then computers, and now, the fun of past challenges was wearing thin, and the list of new possibilities was short.

Running a dog team certainly would be a new challenge, Mark thought as he jogged down the trail, mentally noting a rut that would need filling in later. He remembered the guy they’d met out in Washington State who had the dog team. He’d been very enthusiastic and centered, and with what he showed them it was also clear that there was more to it than just riding behind a dogsled through the woods. It had been summer then, and the guy had been training the dogs on a grass trail, with some sort of buggy, and there had been a lot of pushing and running involved. Probably the exercise would be just as good as jogging and a lot more fun, certainly very different. Just this last weekend, he’d taken out the only book the local library had on dogsledding, and his suspicion seemed to be confirmed.

Mark was so absorbed in thought that he never quite realized when he first had company, but gradually, he became aware that he wasn’t alone.

There was a dog running along with him. Not chasing him, just running alongside, seeming to enjoy the easy pace. "Well, hello, how are you today?" Mark said cheerfully.

The dog looked up at him, and edged in a little closer. Mark didn’t think it strange, at first; a lot of dogs ran loose around this neck of the woods, going home when it was time for supper. This one didn’t have a collar, though, and might be some sort of a stray. It looked a little scraggly and underfed, so it could well be.

Mark didn’t want to stop right then, and he figured the dog would take off and do his own thing after a while. It was a medium-sized dog, and obviously had some German Shepherd in him, but he also had a thicker coat than the typical shepherd. "I’ll bet you’ve got a little husky in you, don’t you, boy?" Mark commented out loud. "Get a little meat on your bones, and you’d be a good-looking dog."

The dog looked up at him and sort of smiled, staying right alongside Mark. He was still there after a mile or so, when Mark reached the logging two-rut where he’d decided he’d turn around. He stopped for a moment to pant a couple of times, then headed back toward the house. The dog raised its leg against a nearby tree, then caught up with him, still running alongside at an easy pace. "Like to run, don’t you, boy?" Mark commented.

As the two jogged down the trail, Mark began to get an unsettling feeling, and all of a sudden, the words of an old black preacher from many years before came to him. He looked down at the dog, then up at the darkening sky. "God, are you trying to tell me something?" he called aloud.

*   *   *

Mike and Kirsten had gone right in to see Frank Matson the first thing Friday morning. They hadn’t expected any problem; Frank had stuck his neck out a little ten years before, when they bought their house, and they had never missed or were even slow on a payment. Frank was a friend, anyway, and his main comment this time had been, "About time you got a decent house." Still, he said he’d have to run it past the loan board, which didn’t meet till Tuesday, so the two had decided not to break the news to the kids until they’d gotten the official word.

Tuesday was always a tough day around the Record-Herald; it was paper day, and this was a big paper for this time of the year. The problem was that there wasn’t a lot of news for the front page. Mike had banked on the County Commission meeting filling out a big chunk of it, but thanks to vacations and hospital stays, the commission had come up one short of a quorum. This was an off week for the city council, too, so that knocked out the possibility of another regular headline. The school board had met Monday night, but had managed to make it through an absolutely nothing meeting in fourteen minutes flat. The only possibility of a headline there was they had managed to finish a meeting in fourteen minutes, rather than the normal four boring hours. While the story Mike had turned up about the paper plant expansion in Warsaw would go a long way toward filling the front page, it lacked the angle local to Spearfish Lake needed for a lead story.

Mike really had needed a lead story, and the only possibility he could think of would to be to do an in-depth story on the storm sewer separation. The thought even bored him, so he’d put little effort into it. He called up city manager Don Kutzley and talked with him for a few minutes, getting a couple of possible quotes, but nothing he didn’t already know. A conversation with Jack Kennesaw, the sewer system superintendent, came out with about the same results.

Finally, as the afternoon wore on, Mike pulled a story about the need for the storm sewer separation out of the clip files from a couple years before, plated the quotes and the grant application over the top of it, and called it good enough.

"Nothing really wrong with it," he told Varner, who wandered in to report that he had no last-minute items that would make a lead story. "Except no one will pay attention to it until they realize how hard it’s going to hit them in the wallet. Until this grant business gets settled and the bids are let, no one will know how bad that’s going to be." Mike finished spell-checking the story, saved it to a disk, and gave the disk to Varner. "Set it up for a three-column block, and a two-deck head, then run it off," he ordered. "I’d better wander up to the layout room and see what other garbage we’ve got that we can make a front page out of."

"Aye, ’tis done," Varner replied. He’d been an English lit major, with drama and journalism minors, and Shakespeare sometimes worked its way out. He headed off to the 286 that was connected to the laser printer, and Mike started to get up when the phone rang.

The caller proved to be Frank Matson. "You can call up Binky and tell her you’ve bought a house," he said. "The loan committee approved. You’re going to need a title search and some other stuff, so it’s probably going to be a month before we can close."

"Nothing wrong with that," Mike agreed. "It’ll take us a month to get ready to move, and I’d really rather not move until after school’s out, anyway."

"Yeah, well, that’s the way it works some times," Matson said. "You get with Binky, and we can work out a time to do the paperwork."

Kirsten walked into the office just as Mike was hanging up the phone. "That was Frank," he said. "We got the loan. It’ll take a month to finish up the loose ends, but I told him I’d just as soon move after the kids were out of school, anyway."

"That means, right about the first full week after school’s out," Kirsten said.

"Yeah," Mike agreed. "I guess we’ll have to put the kids in day care again, though."

Kirsten frowned. "Tiffany is starting to get a little old for day care. I’d kind of hoped we could get her into the summer rec program here in town."

Mike laughed. "She’s at that awkward age, too old for day care and too young for a job at the Frostee Freeze." He paused for a moment, and went on, "You know, if we’re not going to be out at the club a lot this summer, maybe we ought to give Gil a call and see what it would cost to put a hot tub in at the new house. Maybe it could go in that third garage bay that we’re not going to use anyway."

"It’d be nice to have an outdoor hot tub in the winter," Kirsten opined.

"Yeah, but it would cost a ton to heat. I remember Gil tried it years ago, and he wasn’t too happy about it," he reminded her. "Besides, living out there, we’re probably going to need a snowmobile, and even a used one worth buying is going to cost us a thousand or so."

"A hot tub at home would be nice," Kirsten agreed. "My back hurts enough now that I can’t imagine how bad it’s going to be in a couple of months. Maybe Gil could have it put in by the time we move in."

Mike nodded. Carrot and stick had worked again, this time, more the carrot. "Can’t talk to Gil today," he said. "Maybe tomorrow, if we can get the paper wrapped up early."

*   *   *

"I don’t want that dog in the house," Jackie said. "The cats have never had a chance to get used to dogs."

"Hadn’t planned on bringing him in," Mark said. "We could use a good outside watchdog, anyway. It can’t hurt to feed him for a few days and see if he hangs around."

"Well, I don’t know," Jackie said.

Mark hadn’t broached the idea of a dog team to Jackie yet – it wasn’t really firm in his own mind. However, it would only take a little cheap dog food to see if the dog would hang around, and then, if it did, maybe he really was supposed to be moving toward a dog team.

Brother Erasmus, the old black preacher down in Florida, had been the only preacher who Mark had ever really liked, even though Mark spent a term on the board of the Spearfish Lake First Baptist Church. Brother Erasmus had been the only preacher Mark had ever met who acted like he meant what he was talking about, not just mouthing the words. "The Lord be talkin’ to you all the time, showin’ you the way all the time," Mark remembered Brother Erasmus saying. "Just you got to be ready to listen, and most people don’t hear too good."

Mark knew that Jackie cherished the memory of Brother Erasmus as well, but the whole thing was a little too far out to drop the idea on her, just yet. "He seems like a pretty good dog," Mark commented. "Maybe all he needs is a good meal, and he’ll be on his way."

"I don’t know," Jackie said again. "But, you know, he sort of puts me in mind of Cumulus."

"Can’t be," Mark smiled, realizing Jackie was softening. "He’s nowhere near as ugly as Cumulus was."

Cumulus had been the scroungy old mutt of a watchdog at the glider port in Colorado where Mark and Jackie had worked for a few weeks while on their honeymoon. Outside of a tendency to chase airplanes and gliders until he’d been dinged by a propeller, he’d been the perfect watchdog: friendly and playful toward visitors during the day, but with a tendency to rip throats out first and ask questions later of anyone snooping around the place at night. "He just showed up here one day," the owner of the glider port had said. "He saw that there was a job to be done, and that he was just the dog to do it."

Mark shook his head. That had been a long time ago. Cumulus hadn’t been a young dog then, and it had been what? Sixteen years, next month. He had to be long dead and gone, but he’d been one of the best dogs that Mark had ever known.

"We’ll have to keep him tied up while we’re flying," Jackie said. "We wouldn’t want him to tangle with a prop."

"I suppose he wouldn’t mind a meal of cat food and scraps," Mark said. "I’ll put a bowl of it out by that pile of old rags in the hanger. That’ll make him a good place to sleep."

The dog was definitely interested when Mark came out with the bowl full of table scraps and cat food, and followed along closely as Mark led him out to the hanger. He ducked under the wing of the old Cessna, found an old box of rags he used for cleaning and painting, and dumped the box in the corner to make him sort of a bed, then set the bowl down beside it. The dog looked at him, and wagged its tail. "Go ahead, boy," Mark said. "You can have it."

In a matter of seconds, the bowl full of food evaporated. That dog was hungry, and Mark realized it might be the best meal he’d had in a long time. "You can stay here if you like," he told the dog. "I’ve got to go in for supper myself."

Jackie had dinner on the table when Mark got back in the house. It wasn’t that much of a dinner; they were consciously trying to hold down on what they ate, reminiscing about the good old days at the glider port long before.

"Don’t forget, you’ve got to call Frank Matson," Jackie prompted as they finished up.

"I’d kind of hoped to curl up with a book," Mark admitted, "But I suppose there’s no point in putting it off."

Mark got up, went to the phone, and got Matson to describe the problem. It seemed to Mark that the fix had to be simple, and he tried to coach Matson over the phone how to rework the CONFIG.SYS file, but something got lost in the process. "Oh, hell," Mark said finally. "I’ll come over and deal with it. It should only take a couple of minutes."

The dog was waiting on the porch steps when Mark came outside and followed along at his heels as he walked out to his pickup. He opened the door of the truck, and the dog stood there, wagging his tail. "You want to go for a ride, huh?" Mark said.

The dog just stood there, wagging his tail, making little lunges toward the truck, but not willing to hop up without permission. "Oh, hell," Mark said again, giving in, in more ways than one. "Come on, Cumulus."

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