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 29

October 1987

"Aunt Jenniferrrr!" Tiffany cried, streaking across the room, Henry hard at her heels.

"Youíve grown a lot since last summer," Jennifer told the little girl. Well, not little any longer; she was up to her chest, now. She remembered when sheíd babysat for Tiffany, when she had been a baby. The years did fly by.

"Well, come on in and sit down," Kirsten told Jennifer and Blake. "Mikeís not home, right now, but he should be back before long. You know my neighbor, Jackie Gravengood, donít you?"

Jennifer nodded to Jackie, who had come up to the house while Mark and Mike were running the dogs. "Sure," she said. "We shared a memorable flight last summer. Iím sorry I never got back out, but time just sort of flew by."

"It does do that," Jackie said. "It seems like that was just a couple of weeks ago."

"You like coffee?" Kirsten asked. "I was just about to make a fresh pot."

"Iíll pass," Jennifer said. "Iím just about coffeed out today. I know that you havenít met him before, but this is Blake Walworth."

"Youíve got to be Kirsten," Blake said. "Youíre just as pretty as Jenny has been saying."

"Jennifer has talked a lot about you," Kirsten said with a blush. "So, did you come out to see our new house?"

"I wanted to see it," Jennifer said. "And, I want you to come and see mine. I just signed the papers on Elmer Sorensenís old place."

"That place with all the acreage, out on Point Drive?" Kirsten asked. "I saw that Binky just cut the price on it."

"I was going to do it, then I wasnít," Jenny said. "I thought about having Uncle Brent build me a place, but when we got into town, and saw that the price had been lowered, we went out and looked at it and decided that itís just right."

"Well, congratulations," Kirsten said. "Does that mean youíre really going to move back here?"

"Iím afraid itís going to be next spring before I can spend much time here," Jennifer said. "Iíve got a lot contracted for between now and then. Iím kind of hoping to get back for a couple of days between Christmas and New Years, but itís just going to be an in-and-out sort of thing. Iíve got to do a live TV special on Christmas Day, so that kind of shoots Christmas in the foot for me."

"Your folks will be glad you can make it back at all," Kirsten said. "When Danny goes off to college next year, the quiet is going to be hard on them."

"Well, with any kind of luck, I ought to be home next Christmas," Jennifer said. "Do you expect Mike to be long? I kind of hoped to have Blake meet him."

"Heís over at Jackie and her husbandís place, running the dogs," Kirsten said. "Sometimes theyíre fairly quick, but you never know."

"You keep greyhounds?" Blake asked.

"No," Kirsten smiled. "Our husbands went crazy this summer, and decided to start a dog sled team. Now, theyíve got two."

"My dog, George, is running wheel in Daddyís team," Tiffany said. "Youíll have to meet George. Heís a nice dog."

"Heís also the only one that gets to sleep inside," Kirsten said. "No, we have really gone to the dogs the last few months."

"You mean, a dog team, like the Iditarod?" Blake said. "I didnít think you got that much snow around here."

"We get enough," Kirsten said. "The road commission hasnít been too good about plowing this road, and Mike says he doesnít want to get a snow machine. The guys have really been having fun with it, and itís kind of fun to watch."

"Daddy has let me run Cumulus and Ringo with the cart," Tiffany said. "Thatís a lot of fun to do, too."

"Are you big enough for that?" Jennifer asked.

"Itís worked out all right," Kirsten said. "Cumulus and Ringo are the command leaders, and they mind better than the rest of the dogs. Mark just got a new dog a week or so ago, and heís trying to break him in. Mikeís team is still pretty green, so they need work, too."

"Iíd kind of like to see that," Jennifer said.

"No reason we couldnít," Jackie said. "I donít think they were going out on the trail, tonight. Shadow Ė heís the new dog Ė needs to run with the team out in the open a bit, so he doesnít try to wrap himself around a tree."

"Sure," Jennifer said. "Letís go up and see."

"Daddy says that he thinks that George is going to be a command leader when he gets bigger," Tiffany said. "Then, when he does, I want to have a team of my own. Can I ride with you, Aunt Jennifer?"

"Sure thing, Tiffany."

"Me, too!" Henry pleaded.

"Come on, you two," Jennifer said. "I think we can all get in our car."

They found Mark and Mike running the dog teams around the field. When the decision to split the teams had come, it had gotten difficult to have five dogs standing around, while the other five were out pulling the ATV, since the dogs left behind wanted to run, too. Mark and Mike had built a three-wheeled cart for the dogs to pull, reasoning that it would handle more like a sled. It had only a rudimentary claw for a brake, and they had soon learned that they still had a lot to learn.

Markís dogs were pulling the ATV, and he noticed the visitors first, so he ordered Cumulus into the yard, and had them stop. Mike was following not far behind, and he headed into the yard, too. "When Kirsten said you guys had gone to the dogs, she wasnít kidding!" Jennifer exclaimed. "That looks like fun!" She introduced Blake, and Jackie introduced Mark.

"Iíd offer you a ride," Mike said, "but this thing rides rougher than a cob. Still, Iím looking forward to snow."

"This is George," Tiffany said. "Heís my dog."

George still acted like a puppy, but he was getting to be a big puppy. Now pushing fifty pounds, he was already one of the larger dogs in Mikeís team.

"He looks like a good dog," Jennifer said.

"Heís still a little crazy," Mike said. "Heís chewed up more harnesses than the rest of the two teams combined. I think heíll grow out of that, though."

"Can we watch you run them a little bit more?" Jennifer asked. "I donít want to bring your training session to a stop."

"We were getting about ready to quit, anyway," Mark said, "but if you want to watch, we can take íem around the field a couple more times."

"Sure, why not?" Jennifer said. They stood and watched for a few minutes, as the mushers took the dogs around the field again, then ran the dogs up to the hanger, with Mike following Mark. "When you get íem staked out, why not come back up to the house?" Mike asked. "Iíve got to take these dogs home and stake them out, so I have to go, anyway."

"Mark, Iíll help, and then we can drive up," Jackie offered.

"Sure, weíll only be a few minutes."

Blake drove up the road, following Mike, with Jenny, Kirsten, and the kids in the car with him. The dogs moved along pretty well, and Mike was already busy staking dogs out at their houses by the time the carload arrived. While Kirsten went inside to make coffee, Jennifer, Blake, and the kids went out back to watch. Tiffany waded right into the pack of dogs with her father, released a tugline on one of them, took the harness off, and walked the dog over by the neckline to his house.

"Itís a little strange for them," Mike said. "Weíd been keeping all the dogs up at Markís place until a few days ago, but I wanted íem used to being here before snow season comes."

"Isnít that a little hard on the dogs?" Blake asked.

"Not really," Mike said. "They like to run. Whatís hard is to go out with a team and leave a dog behind. The dog thatís left behind wants to be with the gang so bad, heís hard to keep under control." It was a question that had been thrown at Mike repeatedly over the last few months, and by now, heíd evolved an almost-stock lecture about running dog teams. He launched off into it now as he and Tiffany put the dogs away and put the cart into the barn.

"Well, I suppose youíre right," Blake said finally. "I wouldnít know about that, myself. Iím kind of a city boy, and Iím not used to this sort of thing. How do you like living out in the country like this, anyway?"

"We lived in town for many years," Mike said. "I wouldnít go back, and not just because of the dogs. I really like it here. I was never really a country boy myself, either, but Iím starting to get the hang of it."

"You guys coming in for coffee?" Kirsten shouted from the porch. "Mark and Jackie are here already."

*   *   *

"I canít believe youíre still here," John said.

"I find it a little difficult to believe, myself," Heather said, reaching for her wineglass. "Thereís not been much of anything happening."

Their dinner was in the dining room of the Spearfish Lake Inn. Heather wore her swimsuit under her clothes; after dinner, John had arranged for them to use the hot tub. It would be something different to do.

For more than two months, Heather had been having dinner with John, on the average of once a week. He had difficulty getting away more often than that, for in addition to overseeing the preparations for the haunted house with the SADD kids, he coached girlsí basketball, a fall sport in Spearfish Lake. It had gotten so dull for Heather that she had even gone to some of the home games, though she wasnít any kind of sports fan.

"How was the trip to Minneapolis?" John asked.

"A little more productive than the last time," Heather reported. "Right at the moment, it doesnít look like itíll go to court. All theyíd tell me is that theyíre Ďmaking progressí in negotiations with the EPA, but they wonít tell me whatís going on. Me, I think somebodyís stalling."

"Probably," John said. "As far as I know, the EPA hasnít modified their deadline to the city any, so that still stands. I talked to Ryan Clark the other day, and the city is still hanging. Theyíre going to have to jump soon, but they donít have any idea of which way to jump."

"If only we knew there were more snakes," Heather said, "this would be easy."

"Well, youíre not going to find them now," John replied. "Theyíre holed up for the winter."

"I keep looking in the sewers," Heather replied. "The one last spring was active outside the normal season, so thereís maybe a chance theyíll be there. Beyond that, I donít know what to do." She shook her head. "I really appreciate your asking me out to dinner, John," she said. "It gives me something to look forward to."

"Thanks," he said. "I appreciate that." He hadnít given up hope of action with Heather, but there was something about her that didnít make it an imperative, either. There was something of a kindred spirit he sensed about her, but he couldnít quite put his finger on what it was. If it eventually came down to a one-night stand, thatís what it would be. If it didnít, it didnít, and he found himself amazed at being so philosophical about it. "I look forward to these dinners, too," he added. "Have you had any nibbles on your whale project?"

Over the course of the weeks, he had slowly drawn some history out of Heather. She had told him about the demonstrations at Old Brook, and although she didnít mention the exact nature of her pivotal role, heíd gotten the impression sheíd been right up to her ears in organizing the protest. Sheíd told him other things sheíd been involved in over the years, and had told him of her idea to put pressure on the Japanese over their whaling fleet.

"Not really," she said. "A number of people have said that itís a good idea, but itís going to take a big organization with a lot of clout to put together a boycott effective enough to make the Japanese hurt a little. Itís not something that can be started from scratch and on a shoestring budget."

"Well, I hope it works out for you," John said, "though, Iíll be sorry to see you go."

"I wonít be sorry to leave," Heather said, "except for these dinners with you. I suppose Iím being morbid, but it bothers me to see the trees bare, with the leaves all gone. It means winter is on the way, and Iím not really a winter person. I guess thatís why Iíve put up with living in Los Angeles all these years."

"Winter is something you have to endure," John said. "Iím not really thrilled with it, myself, but you know how it is when youíve got tenure. It makes it hard to leave. I keep thinking that Iíll have my minimum requirement in for retirement the end of the semester, and maybe Iíll just chuck it myself and go find something else to do, someplace where itís warm. Now that my daughter is married, there isnít much keeping me here anymore."

"I still refuse to believe that youíre old enough to have a married daughter," Heather said. "You canít be that much older than I am."

"I got started early," he laughed. "I was still in college, and I guess I was a bit crazy. Iíll have the requirements for retirement in, although I canít draw on it for a good many years, yet. Thereís still time for me to do something else with my life. Maybe I should look for something with some environmental organization."

"Thereís not a lot out there, right now," Heather said. "At least, thatís what Iím finding."

"Well, itís just a dream," John said. "Iíll probably teach here for another twenty years, and die when I donít have a classroom in the fall."

"Thatís no way to talk. Thatís just slow suicide."

"Youíre right," he said. "Letís try to find a happy subject. Speaking of which, howíd you like to go to a party next weekend?"

"What kind of party?"

"A Halloween party," John said. "A big one, out at West Turtle Lake. Itís an invitation-only thing, but I get tickets from a guy whose daughter was on the team the year we won the state championship."

"This is costumes, and the whole bit?"

"Costumes, and the whole bit. This is one of the big things in Spearfish Lake, has been the last few years. It probably would be good for people to see you with your hair down, so to speak."

"It sounds like fun," Heather said. "I donít know what Iíd do for a costume, but it could be fun."

"Some people put a lot of work into costumes for this," John said, "but you wouldnít be expected to."

"Come on, help me out on this," she said. "I havenít been to a costume party since grade school."

"You want to get away from the reality of who you are. Something that you probably would never be close to in real life." He smiled. "I do have one idea, and it would probably be pretty easy to do, but I donít want you to think that Iím being sexist when I tell you what it is."

"I wonít," she smiled. "Iím open to suggestions."

"You probably wonít like it, but think it through."

"Come on, what is it?"

He told her. A frown crossed her face when she first heard the idea, but in a few seconds, it took hold. "That would work," she said. "Itíd take a little time to make the skirt, but Iíve got nothing but time on my hands right now."

"Actually, I think we could go down to Camden and buy what you need," he said. "Thereís a couple of other things that go with it that you could get there. I could take you Saturday."

"Letís do it," she said. "I could stand to get out of town for a day, and thatíll give me something to look forward to."

*   *   *

Just sitting around talking, it soon got to be late. Mark and Jackie had a cup of coffee, and then went home. Then, it was time for Tiffany and Henry to be off to bed; it would be a school day tomorrow. Jennifer and Blake sat with Mike and Kirsten and talked for a while, and finally, Kirsten said, "Iíve got to get the dishes done, and the dishwasher isnít working. Gil is supposed to come out and work on it tomorrow, but Iíd better get going on it."

"Iíll help," Blake offered.

"Well, arenít you the nice guy?" Kirsten said as he followed her to the kitchen. "Thatís something Mike wouldnít do."

"Let me take a quick look at the dishwasher," Blake said. "I used to work on them."

"Nice guy," Mike commented. "What do your folks think of him?"

"They seem to like him," Jennifer said. "I mean, they know heís not my boyfriend, or anything, but they seem to hit it off pretty well."

"Itíd be hard to tell he isnít your boyfriend," Mike said. "He seems to take really good care of you."

"He does," Jennifer said. "I couldnít get along without him. I just hope he can fit in here. This place is awful cold and empty if youíve grown up in Los Angeles."

"Folks around here are going to figure heís your boyfriend," Mike said. "Maybe youíd just better accept it."

"Well, he is, sort of," Jennifer said. "I mean, if you leave sex out of it, and for me, thatís not hard to do. Blakeís been with me for years now, and Iím not so sure I could get as close to anyone else. I mean, if he were to stay in L.A., Iím afraid Iíd be as homesick for him here, as I am homesick for here when Iím in L.A."

"Well, maybe itíll work out," Mike said.

Blake stuck his head back into the room. "Found it," he said. "Where can I find a screwdriver and a crescent wrench?"

"Got some down in the basement," Mike said. "Iíll go get íem."

A couple of minutes later, they were all gathered in the kitchen, watching Blake work on the ailing dishwasher. "If Jennifer canít keep you busy when you move here," Kirsten suggested, "Iím sure her father can."

"Thatís kind of what Iím afraid of," Blake said as he worked at a fitting. "I donít mean working on appliances, or anything. Iím just worried that things are going to be a little dull here, after L.A."

"Things arenít really dull, here," Mike said. "Thereís plenty going on. Not the same sort of things, but plenty to keep you interested. Like this party weíve got coming up."

"I keep telling him that," Jennifer said. "There are no parties in L.A. like this one. This one is just as wild, and here, youíre among friends. Iím just glad weíre able to come this year."

"Have you got your costumes all worked out?" Kirsten asked.

"Blake found us some," Jennifer replied. "He talked to some wardrobe guy, and I donít know how they came up with the idea, but weíre doing Roy Rogers and Dale Evans."

"It wasnít entirely my idea," Blake said. "I thought maybe Johnny Ringo, the gunfighter, black hat, no shave for three days, the whole bit, but that would have left Jenny as the schoolmarm. Anyway, this guy said Jenny should be the flashy one, and somehow, we got around to that."

"Cute," Kirsten said. "Gee, I remember watching them on TV when I was a kid."

"Yeah, me too," Mike said. "That was always kind of a fun show."

"All right," Blake said, pushing the unit back into place. "Letís give it a try."

Jenny shook her head as the dishwasher started. "It doesnít sound very good," she said.

"They all sound like that," Blake said. "Goes with the brand. Iím afraid I got soaked."

"Iíd loan you some clothes," Mike said. "But I know I havenít got anything that would fit a big horse like you."

"I know," Kirsten said. "Letís go soak in the hot tub, and Iíll just throw those in the dryer."

Mikeís gut wrenched a little, but he knew to say nothing.

"Youíve got a hot tub here?" Jennifer said. "Iíve thought about getting one, but now that weíre leaving Malibu, thereís no point in it."

"Sure, come on," Kirsten said. "Blake, I donít know how you handle bare-assed, but thatís how the rest of us do it."

"I donít know, either," Blake said, unbuttoning his shirt. "Thatís one thing Iíve never done. But I suspect that Iím going to find out."

"With Jennifer, Iím sure you will," Mike said. "This is a good way to ease into it." For both of us, he thought.

The four of them were in the tub a few minutes later. "So whatís the deal, with this big new house? I donít think Iíve ever been in that one," Kirsten asked. "Is it nice?"

"Very nice," Jennifer said. "Itís going to need some work, and it needs furniture from one end to the other. Look, you two. Iím going to keep an eye on the paper, and if some antique thing comes up that I might like, can I call you to check it out for me? Maybe send me a picture, or something?"

"Sure," Mike said. "No big deal. You get the Record-Herald about as quick as if you lived in town."

"Yes, and I appreciate it, too," Jennifer said. "There have been times I couldnít get along without it."

"Let me tell you," Blake said, "come Thursday night, there better not be anyone between Jenny and her paper, or theyíre going to get flattened."

"I think I read every word," Jennifer said. "I have, ever since I left."

"Glad to know someone appreciates it," Mike said.

"Blake," Jennifer asked. "What would you think of a hot tub out on the porch, overlooking the lake?"

"Itíd get cold in the winter," Blake said.

"Yeah, but think of how good it would feel to be up to your neck in the hot water, while the snow is blowing in your face," Jennifer said.

"Thereís no reason you couldnít have two, I suppose," Blake said.

The conversation drifted to plans for the new house. Clearly, it was going to need some work, but Jennifer was aglow with the possibilities, and Blake seemed to be looking forward to dealing with them. As they talked, Mike leaned back in the tub and reflected that Jennifer and Blake really did seem to have a good relationship. It would be hard to tell that they werenít boyfriend and girlfriend, not just employee and employer.

But then, Mike wouldnít have known that Blake was gay, if Jennifer hadnít told him. He hadnít made up his own mind, yet, about how he felt about being in the hot tub with him; it was a strange feeling, one he hadnít sorted out yet. Mike was pretty sure that Kirsten didnít know, but he wondered what she would have been thinking if she did.

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