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 32

November, 1987

A couple of weeks after the Halloween Party the annual miracle occurred, creeping in silently in the early hours of a Saturday morning, transforming the barren ugliness of the late fall litter, the dead weeds, and the barren trees into a sparkling wonderland of white, pristine, and clean even in the gray light of a November sky.

The miracle couldn’t last; early November snow rarely does, even in the north woods country of Spearfish Lake. There would be snow enough in the next few months that even the most joyous lover of winter would be thoroughly sick of it before the landscape returned to green, but the first blanket of white covering the fields and forest floors was a thing of beauty, a special wonder to behold.

Mike McMahon hadn’t been expecting snow; the weatherman on the TV station in Camden had said something about "possible scattered flurries," so when he stumbled to the bathroom in the early morning light, with the full intention of returning to bed for another couple of hours, the sight of the blanket of white in the early morning light brought him instantly awake. He looked once, briefly, then looked again at the white fields and the few inches of heavy wet snow piled on the windowsill, and he knew instantly what to do: he half walked, half ran to the phone, and dialed it frantically.

"What’s out?" a half-awake Mark replied. The only reason he ever got a call at that hour of the morning was a major malfunction of the phone system.

The response was the last thing he expected: "Come on, sack rat, let’s go! We’ve got snow!"

"It’s not supposed to snow," Mark protested.

"Look out the window, then get dressed," an excited Mike said. "I’ll get some coffee brewing while I’m harnessing up the dogs, and bring us a couple of thermoses. This could be gone in a few hours!" There was an abrupt click on the phone. Mike obviously didn’t intend to waste time talking.

Not quite believing the phone call, Mark swung out of bed, went to the window, and pulled back the drape a little. Even without his glasses, the brightness of the landscape told him everything he needed to know. His activity was only a little less frantic than Mike’s, if only because he tended to be, in automotive terms, more of a hard starter and slower to warm up, but the excitement got to him quickly. Like Mike, he’d looked forward to this day for a long time.

A quarter mile down Busted Axle Road, Mike was moving fast. He put on regular underwear and long underwear, heavy socks, woolen pants and shirt, and shoepac boots, all at a record pace, and all without waking Kirsten, more was the wonder. He stopped by Tiffany’s room, and shook the gray lump sleeping at the foot of her bed until he wagged his tail and lifted his head. "Come on, George," he whispered in a low voice so as to not wake his daughter. "We’ve got things to do."

Downstairs, he set the coffeepot to making some eyelid widener and opened a can of dog food for George. He then opened four more cans for the rest of the Beatle Hounds while he let the tap run to get a bucket of warm water. While George inhaled his dog food, Mike took a bucket, some dog dishes and the open cans of food, and without bothering with a coat, went outside to give the rest of his dogs an unexpected early morning breakfast.

Even the dogs were still asleep, but a thump on the top of the first doghouse brought Ringo out into the open air. Ringo sniffed at the strange whiteness of the countryside and wagged his tail with excitement; somehow, he knew in his very bones what this white stuff meant.

The other dogs could sense Ringo’s excitement, and one by one, they poked their heads out of their warm, cozy doghouses, wondering what all the excitement was about, and soon they too were jumping around at the end of their chains, waiting for their breakfasts and waiting for the run that was sure to come. It was more than just a general group excitement; all of the dogs had a good shot of husky in their genes, and their genes told them what this white stuff was all about.

While the dogs were scarfing down their breakfasts, Mike went into the barn, picked up the until-now-unused sled that had set under a tarp for a couple of months, and carried it outside, where the Teflon strips mounted on the runners kissed the snow for the first time. Mike went back inside the barn, got a tieline, and tied the back of the sled to a handy fence post, then threw a handful of harnesses and rigging into the sled, where they’d be handy.

Feeling just a touch chilled by now, he went back inside for a fairly heavy coat, stocking cap and warm gloves. The coffee was about done; he poured it into a couple of thermoses, and zipped them and some dog snacks into a padded carry bag that Kirsten had sewn for just this purpose, then took George by the collar and headed back out to the sled.

By then, the other dogs were rolling in the snow, bouncing at the end of their chains, and howling with sheer excitement in the half-light of the gray morning. Mike fastened George to the gangline by a neckline to his collar; the harness could come later, since George hadn’t gotten over chewing on harnesses yet. From there, Mike went down the row of doghouses to the last one, where David waited, as excited as the other dogs. He sat back and settled down a little as Mike slipped the harness over his head and helped him get his paws through the proper holes, then Mike led him over to the waiting sled, where he fastened the harness to a tugline and a neckline to his collar.

One by one, the other dogs followed, Paul and John next, with Ringo going to his accustomed place at the front of the gangline. Last of all came George’s harness; Mike was so excited that he almost forgot about it, and getting a harness on George in the midst of the pack of eager dogs probably was the toughest job of all. Thinking about George and his habit of chewing harnesses, Mike made a last trip into the barn for a spare harness, just in case. Throwing that into the sled, he put one foot on the rubber pad of a runner and stepped hard on the brake – a steel claw on a hinge at the back of the sled, something that might hold the eager team for a moment or two, and slipped the bow knot he’d tied in the tieline.

It was time. He’d waited for this moment for months, suffered through all the practice sessions in the heat, the bruises and bumps, the sweat and the frustration of trying to beat a few simple commands into the mind of each dog, the idea of working as a team. He took his foot off the brake, and put it on the other runner, and gripped the drive bow tightly.

"Beatle Hounds, UP!" he yelled, filled with excitement no less than the eager team in front of him. "Hike! Hike! HIKE!"

*   *   *

In an instant, twenty dog legs were transformed into an instrument of pure rocket power, blasting off up the slight hill. "HAW! HAW! Mike ordered, and Ringo took the team in a broad turn around the house and out into the driveway. Mike was so excited at the sensation of running on the snow that he forgot to give Ringo the command for the gee turn onto the road, but for more than a month, every training session had started with a turn up the road to Mark’s house, so Ringo made the turn anyway. The dogs were full of energy and excitement, and Mike had the good sense to let them run it out, with the expectation that soon they’d settle down into a reasonable trail trot.

No one had been over Busted Axle Road in the early morning snow; the white width of the road was unbroken by tire tracks. The dogs had quit barking and yelping and had settled down to running, their paws kicking up little balls of snow, the quiet "schussss" of the runners the only sound to break the pristine silence. Mike could have ridden behind the team like that forever, but in less than a minute, it was time to give the "haw! Haw!" that turned his five dogs into Mark’s driveway. It was a tight turn, going hard, and only the pull of David and George, the wheel dogs, helped him make the corner. "Easy! Easy!" he shouted to the team, but they were so full of the moment that they didn’t want to stop. Mike caught a glimpse of Jackie’s face in the bedroom window as the team shot through the yard and out behind the shop, where Mark ought to be with his team. Fortunately, Mark was ready to go when Mike and the Beatle Hounds shot by, for the sight of the running team in front of him was more than his dogs could stand; his command of "HIKE" came even as the dogs were running.

The two teams raced down the runway, with Mike’s team twenty or thirty yards in front. At the end of the runway, the trail narrowed to a two-rut, with tall grass poking through the snow in the hump between the ruts, and soon, even that came to an end, as the two-rut narrowed to the spur to the North Country Trail. As the trail junction came up, Mike yelled "gee!" to take the team onto the familiar training trail, new now in its coat of freshly fallen snow. Though the trail was wide enough to run Mark’s forty-year-old farm tractor along, and Mike had helped out with trail maintenance over the summer, it was just a little on the narrow side. Now Mike and Mark had to work to try to keep the sled out of the branches on both sides of the trail as the teams raced around the corners, down the little grades, and up the small hills.

After a couple of miles, the dogs were beginning to get over the initial burst of energy, and they slowed a little, settling down into a nice trail trot of perhaps eight or ten miles an hour. Though the two men still had to work at steering the sleds, it was a little less frantic. Still, it was another mile or so to an open field before Mike felt confident enough to glance back to see how close behind Mark was.

Mark and his dogs weren’t far behind, perhaps twenty yards or so, close enough to yell back and forth. Mike turned his head to yell over his shoulder, "Is this what it’s all about, or what?"

"You got it, Buddy!" he heard Mark yell back.

"You want to lead?"

"Not yet," Mark yelled. "Let’s go a while!"

Very quickly, the edge of the woods was upon them, and Mike and Mark had to put their attention back to the sleds, sliding gracefully through the snow, bumping over the rough spots and water bars, dragging in spots where pine trees had captured the wet snow and hung with weighted limbs. It seemed like only a few minutes, but it must have been close to an hour before Mike and his team reached the two-rut that was as far as he and Ringo had ever come on the trail. From now until they turned around, they’d have to depend on Mark’s knowledge and Cumulus’ nose to find their way. With a touch of sadness, he called his team to a halt in a wide spot just before the two-rut.

"How far do you want to go?" Mark called as he and his team eased past.

"I’d say let’s go to Warsaw and settle the bet now," Mike said, "but I don’t think the snow will last and I want to let Tiffany have a ride."

"Fine," Mark said, turning as he passed. "Let’s go to at least Turtle Hill, then have some coffee before we turn around."

Mike let Mark and his team get a little ways ahead before he gave his dogs the order to get moving again. The two had speculated for months that Mike’s team was probably a little faster, but with the ATV and the cart, there had never been a fair test of the issue until now. At any rate, the natural trail trot of Mike’s team was a little faster than Mark’s and they were soon running only yards behind him. The trail looped north a long way out of the way to stay on state land, but was a fairly easy trail, and Mike didn’t have to put all of his attention on guiding the sled. It was pretty countryside, even prettier with all the wet snow, and the dogs were running quietly, hardly disturbing a thing. How different, how peaceful it was, compared to a roaring, grunting snowmobile! Undoubtedly, the snow machines were out this morning, and occasionally they heard the sound of one through the snow-filled forest, but this was so much more natural. It was a wonder to be out on a day like today.

The wind was in their faces, making their noses run a little, but the slight breeze allowed the two teams to sneak up on a big buck, twelve points at least. They were almost on top of the deer before he noticed them. His head came up with a start, and he bounced off down the trail, which here was located on an abandoned two-rut. The dogs of both the teams noticed, and started to chase after him like they’d just been dropped into passing gear.

Both Mark and Mike yelled "whoa!" and stomped down on their sled brakes, but in the brief burst of acceleration, which lasted a couple of hundred yards, Mike’s team gained noticeably on Mark’s team. Fortunately, the deer bounded off into the brush and got downwind, and the dogs lost the scent. "No doubt about it," Mike called to Mark, "these dogs can run!"

It seemed like only minutes before the trail bent upward on a sidehill, snaking back and forth, and Mike realized they must be climbing Turtle Hill, a high old glacial esker that overlooked much of the Spearfish Lake country. A narrow dirt road wound to the top elsewhere on the hill, and the overlook was a favorite place for couples to come out for a romantic evening, as Mike well knew – but that point was a little farther down the ridge, and the best overlook of all was where the trail came out into the open at the top of the ridge. It was here that Mark finally called a halt, and by now, the dogs were ready for a break.

Mike took the tieline out of the sled basket, where it had lain since he’d left his yard, and tied it to a small sapling, hardly larger than a bush. He took another tieline, and hooked it to the front of the gangline, tying it to a small sapling, then one by one, tied Paul and George out on it, so they’d be away from their team mates when it came time for snacks; no fights over food could result. Mark tied his dogs out similarly perhaps ten yards away, then both went down the line of dogs, giving them a trail snack and a chewy that would keep them busy for a while. With each went a pat on the head and a few words of affection. The dogs had behaved nearly perfectly, perhaps as a result of their long training, and both Mark and Mike were proud of them.

Only after all the dogs were fed did Mike pull the thermoses out of their carry bag and hand one to Mark. Mike sat down on his sled, near the brush bow, and poured himself a cup, while Mark brushed the snow off of a nearby rock and sat down himself.

The coffee – the first sip of the day for either of them – tasted good going down. They sat there for a long time, looking at each other and the dogs, looking out over the broad expanse of forest and field that they had crossed, looked down at the West Turtle Lake Club, a couple of miles away down the hill. The gray, smoking expanse of the open water of Spearfish Lake lay in the distance beyond, the town barely visible on the horizon. They both sat sipping coffee and not saying anything, not wanting to break the magic of the moment.

It was Mark who finally broke the silence: "Wow!"

"Me too. God, what a morning!"

There wasn’t a lot more to say for a while. They sipped their coffee again, and each poured another cup from their thermos. "Dogs worked real well," Mark said finally.

"Probably should have stopped for a breather back around the forest road," Mike observed. "But the dogs were going so well, I hated to stop."

"Yeah." Mark agreed. "This is what I had in mind."

*   *   *

Both Mark and Mike felt like they could go on to Warsaw from the top of Turtle Hill, but it was clear that the snow wouldn’t last, so it was with real regret that they turned homeward. The trip back was slower; they stopped to rest the dogs a couple of times and to further drain the thermoses. They stopped briefly in Mark’s yard. "I’ll give Kirsten and the kids a ride," Mike said. "Then, let’s go to town and have breakfast. If the snow holds, maybe we can go out this afternoon."

"Good idea," Mark agreed, using the tieline to fasten his team to the trailer hitch of his truck. "Except that it’s pretty close to lunchtime. I’ll go see if Jackie wants a ride."

"See you later," Mike said, and gave his team a gentle "hike" to send them back up the road to his house. He brought the team to a stop at his back steps, tied the sled to the handrail, and went inside.

"I wondered what happened to you," Kirsten said. "Then I noticed the snow, and that the dogs were gone, and I didn’t need any other hints."

"Beautiful trip," Mike said. "We went clear to Turtle Hill. That was great, the dogs worked wonderfully. You want a ride?"

"Some other time," Kirsten replied. "Tiffany’s been moping around because you didn’t take her.

A sparkle came to Mike’s eye. "I know how to make it up to her," he said.

He walked into the living room, where Tiffany and Henry were watching cartoons. "Hey, you kids like a dogsled ride?" he said.

Both were up like a shot. "Get dressed warm," he said. "I’ll be out back."

Mike went back outside, and gave each of the five dogs a little personal attention. The kids were outside in record time; for once, Henry dressed quicker than Tiffany. He put the two kids in the sled basket, then headed across the road, to where the training trail in the field lay covered with snow. He made two laps around the field, then brought the sled to a halt. "Hey, Tiffany," he said, "Would you like to drive for a while?"

"Can I, Daddy?" she squealed, not quite believing he might let her.

"Sure thing," he said, "Let’s you and me trade places." He probably wouldn’t have done it, but the dogs were a little tired from the fast trip to Turtle Hill and back, and they were carrying more weight than normal. Tiffany had run behind Cumulus and Ringo on the ATV, and that hadn’t been very fast, but still, nothing was likely to happen.

He got into the sled, got Henry between his knees, while Tiffany stood on the runners, holding the brake down with one foot. "Are you ready, Daddy?" she said.

"Sure thing," he said. "Whenever you’re ready."

With her voice almost supersonic with excitement, she cried, "Beatle Hounds! Up! HIKE!"

It wasn’t the mad rush of his earlier trip, but the dogs took off pretty hard down the well-known trail from endless sessions earlier in the summer. Ringo knew the way like the back of his paw, and the team went around the field at a sedate pace. Things went so well, in fact, that Mike got bigger ideas. He turned, looked over his shoulder, and said, "Stop when you get in front of the house."

Then after a couple minutes, the team came to the part of the training trail closest to the house, and Tiffany brought the team to a halt, standing on the brake and shouting, "whoa."

"OK, Henrykins, get up," Mike said to the six year old. He got up, and Mike followed. He turned to Tiffany, and said, "Do you think you can do it by yourself?"

She wasn’t expecting that. "Do you think I can?" she said.

"I wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t think you could," Mike said. "You can do three laps around the track, no more, then bring the dogs back up to the back yard, and we’ll tie them out so they can have a rest."

"OK, Daddy. Three laps," she promised.

"You be careful," he said. "They’re going to move out a lot faster without the weight."

"I will, Daddy."

Mike and Henry stood back, as Tiffany took hold of the drive bow, took her foot off the brake, and got the team moving. It seemed pretty fast to Mike, just standing there, but Tiffany was a solid kid, and it didn’t bother her. Somehow, Mike knew that Ringo knew to take it easy, too.

"Can I do it too, Daddy?" Henry asked.

"Hey, Henrykins," Mike said. "Your time will come. You’re still a little young for that. Would you like to do something else for me, though?"

"Aw, she always gets to do stuff that I don’t get to do," he said, disappointed.

"Look at it this way, kiddo," Mike said. "Think of the things that you get to do that Susan doesn’t get to do."

"She’s just a baby," Henry protested.

"Like I said, your time will come," Mike said. "So will Susan’s, but she’s going to have to wait even longer than you do. Would you like to do something for me?"

"What?" Henry asked, still a little disappointed, but not really surprised.

"Run over and get your mommy, and tell her that she wants to look outside."

"All right, Daddy," he said, turning to run toward the house.

Mike turned his back on him, looking across the field to where Tiffany and the team were going down the back trail. She seemed to be handling the sled well. He stood and watched as the team came by, with Ringo leading at a sedate trail trot, with Tiffany riding the sled, grinning from ear to ear. "It’s fun, Daddy!" she yelled.

Only after she passed did Mike turn around to look at the house. There, on the front step stood Henry and Kirsten, watching the scene. Kirsten was probably going to be upset that Mike had turned Tiffany loose and alone with the team, but this wasn’t the time to worry about that. He felt a special pride as he watched Tiffany take the team around the field, pride in a good set of dogs that he’d trained up, and pride in his special daughter. She’d just turned ten, and it wasn’t every ten year old he’d feel comfortable turning loose like this, but she was handling it well.

In a little while, the team came around again. "Last lap, then take them up to the house," he said. "I’ll meet you there."

He stood and watched for a while longer, then started back to the house, realizing that Kirsten was still standing outside, watching. It took a couple minutes to walk through the tall weeds before he could yell to Kirsten. "What do you think of our littlest musher?" he yelled.

"It looks like you’ve created another maniac," she yelled back.

There was no time for repartee. "Go get the video camera," he yelled. "You ought to be able to catch her when she comes in the yard."

Mike just reached the back of the house when Tiffany brought the team and the sled into the yard, as Kirsten stood on the back porch filming the final moments. The video camera recorded a little touch that Mike didn’t realize at the time but gave him a lot of pride when he looked at the video in the years afterward.

Tiffany drove the team right up by the barn, and yelled "whoa!" and stood on the brake. The dogs came to a stop fairly promptly, and Tiffany hopped off of the sled, tieline in hand, and tied the sled to a post before she ran the few steps to her father and threw her arms around him.

Details, Mike realized later. Tiffany knew that taking care of the team came before things like even hugs of joy.

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