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 35

Jim Horton lived right on the edge of Warsaw, not far from a two-rut that would take Mark and Mike to the North Country Trail. When Mike had called a couple of days before, he’d said he’d be glad to let them park Mark’s truck there overnight. "Been a long time since they’s been a dog team in this yard," Jim told him. "Be good to see one again."

"We’ll be there about noon," Mike said, "unless something comes up."

Nothing came up, and right at noon, Mark drove the pickup into the yard. It was pretty well packed, with eight dogs in the dog box in the bed of the pickup, and what spare space was available in the bed filled with camping gear. The two sleds rode tied to the top of the dog box. By the time Cumulus and Ringo piled into the front seat with Mark and Mike, there hadn’t been much space unused.

No sooner than they had stopped, than the front door of Horton’s house opened, and Jim came out with Fred Linder. "Good to see you again, Mike," Fred said. "Jim told me you guys were coming over. He’s been telling me about your dogs, and I remember my grandfather and his team, so I thought I’d stop by."

"Well, these teams are sort of your grandfather’s grandchildren," Mike said, "passed down from Jim. We probably wouldn’t have them without him."

"It’ll be good to see them again," Fred said. "God, some of the stories my grandfather used to tell about his dogs."

"I’d like to hear them sometime," Mike said, genuinely interested. He’d gotten interested in the old-time Spearfish County dog mushers, and very little information was available that he’d been able to find from other sources.

"I remember some of them," Fred said. "We’ll have to get together some time. Anything I can do to help?"

"I don’t know," Mark said. "I suppose we ought to get the sleds loaded, then hook up the dogs. That could take a while."

They took the sleds off of the top of the pickup and began to pile gear into them.

"Hey, boys," Jim said, "don’t mean to be telling you what to do, but the sleds will ride a whole lot better if you pack them right. You want to put the heavy stuff to the back, and down as low as you can get it. You don’t want to take a lot of stuff for you; you’ve got so much stuff that you’ve got to take for the dogs."

"Seemed like a lot of gear," Mike agreed. "But, we couldn’t see how to get by on much less."

"Look, unload all that stuff," Jim said. "Then, take yourself a tarp and set it down into the basket, spread out, and pile your stuff on the tarp. Then, when you get loaded, you can tie it up into one big bundle."

"That’s why we came here," Mark said. "We knew you’d set us on the right track."

"Used to sleep out on the trap line, sometimes," Jim said. "Didn’t have two sleds to haul all the stuff, either. Didn’t even take me a tent. I just curled up in the sleeping bag in the sled basket and threw the tarp over me. Dug me a snow cave, sometimes, when they’d been a lot of snow."

"That doesn’t sound very comfortable," Mike commented.

"Warmer out of the cold and wind. I went through a hell of a lot worse when I was in Italy with Battery D," Jim said. "Did get a mite wet and cold at times, there."

Eventually, they got the sleds loaded. Mark tied his to the back of the pickup, and Mike to a nearby tree, and they began to break out the dogs.

After being cooped up in the boxes, even for the short ride to Warsaw, the dogs were happy to be out in the open, being harnessed up and hooked to the ganglines.

"Eager bunch of dogs," Jim observed. "They want to run."

"We’ll give them a chance," Mark said, hooking Cumulus to the gangline, the last dog to be hooked up. "I think we’d better get on the move," he commented. "They’re not going to be happy hitched up and then just standing around."

"Sounds about right," Jim said. "When you guys get back tomorrow, I’ll have the coffeepot on. I’ll want to hear how it went. I just wish I was young enough to go with you."

"I may drop by, too," Linder said. "Damn, that looks like fun."

"Don’t know when we’ll be back for sure," Mark said. "Could be anytime between, say, nine and two. We’ll be looking forward to the coffee. You ready, Mike?"

"Lay on, Macduff," Mike told him.

"You’ve been hanging around Varner too long," Mark replied, slipping the tieline. "Gravediggers, UP!" he yelled. "HIKE!"

"Gravediggers?" Horton asked.

"We realized that each of us running a team and the two teams running together, the dogs could listen to the wrong command," Mike said. "So, we’ve been working on that."

"But, why ‘Gravediggers?’" Linder asked.

"It’s a long story," Mike said. "I’ll tell you tomorrow. I’d better not let him get too far ahead." He turned to the dogs. "Beatle Hounds, UP!" he yelled. "Hike-Hike-HIKE!"

The first mile or so out of Warsaw was a little rough; the road had been plowed, and they had to run along the snow-filled berm, where the going wasn’t good. On top of that, the dogs were busy with their first-mile mad rush, and Mike was glad to see Mark and his team finally turn off onto an unplowed two-rut through scrub pine trees. The two-rut didn’t last long before they turned again onto the North Country Trail.

The first couple of miles of the trail weren’t easy going, either; it was narrow and crooked, and even with only five dogs, there were times that Mike couldn’t see Ringo ahead of him as they snaked through the small pines. After a while, the trail opened up into mixed aspen and hardwood, and occasionally they got to a point where they could see the tamaracks of the Spearfish River swamps below them.

Quite soon, Mike and his team had caught up with Mark, who had the slower going from having to break trail. By then, the dogs had settled down into an easy trot. The brush had withdrawn to a respectful distance, and the team glided along the snow-filled course of a small creek, descending into the swamp. Lefts and rights, now lean this way, now that, duck under a snow-heavy pine branch. At the moment, Mike believed truly that this is what he had been called in life to do – not pound a computer keyboard, writing stories. At the moment, there was nothing else in the world that he would rather be doing than this.

They stopped for a break after a while and sipped coffee from their thermoses. "About another hour, I guess," Mark said. "I really don’t know this end of the trail very well."

"Doesn’t look like your style of trail," Mike commented. "You couldn’t get a tractor down this one."

"Yeah, I didn’t have much to do with it here," Mark said. "Others maintain this part. There’s a bridge up a ways that I helped put in, but we won’t get that far this trip."

"You want me to break trail?"

"Better not," Mark said, "I at least have some idea of where I’m going. You can lead going back out tomorrow."

The sun was getting low in the sky before they finally made it to the campsite, nestled in a snow-covered valley, the river still running open in front of it. "Beautiful place," Mike said.

"It’s nice in the summer, too. But this trip, we won’t be up to our butts in mosquitoes."

"There are some advantages to winter camping," Mike observed.

They had a lot of work in front of them, and the afternoon was waning. "Let’s unload the sleds," Mark said, "and run back up to that pine grove we passed through about a quarter mile back. There’ll be plenty of dead branches we can pull down, and they ought to be pretty dry. They’ll burn fast, so we’ll want a lot of them if we want a campfire for very long."

By the time they got back to the camp, the sled baskets filled with firewood, the sun was close to setting. They stretched picket lines for the dogs, tied off each dog a respectable distance from the next one, and broke up the bale of straw to give each dog a pad to sleep on. Then, while Mike fired up the stove and began to warm a large pot of dog food, Mark walked down to the river to get water for the dogs, and then Mike started to set up the tent.

Everything went more slowly than Mike had anticipated, but he was finally able to feed the dogs and give them warm water. By then, Mark had a pot of stew on the stove, and was laying out wood for a camp fire. "It’ll burn fast, even as much wood as we’ve got," he said. "Let’s wait until we eat before we touch it off.

It was after dark before they finally got time to eat and then wash the dishes in more water warmed on the gas stove. Finally, in the stove’s meager light, Mark took a handful of straw, stuffed it into the stacked wood, and set it off.

The campfire took off quickly. There were a couple squares of dog-bed straw left over, and Mike gave Mark one to sit on as they gazed into the leaping flames. Overhead, the stars were bright; in the west, Mark could look out and see that Cygnus was taking its Christmas dive to the horizon. First in solos, then in duets, then in harmonies, the dogs began to sing, and Mark and Mike sat quietly for some time, just listening. Then, just as quickly as the concert had started, it stopped.

"God, that’s beautiful," Mark whispered. "In town, nobody would appreciate that, but out here, it really fits."

"I don’t think the women would understand," Mike said. "At least, not our women."

"There’s a lot of people who think it’s cruel to run dogs," Mike said. "I’ve been hassled about it a little. People like that just wouldn’t understand it right now, the dogs may be happier than we are."

"Yeah," Mark said quietly. "They wouldn’t understand."

*   *   *

It was a Monday morning. An onshore wind had blown out much of the L.A. smog today, and the view from Harris Harper’s office was what the Los Angles view should be. Like many other people, he didn’t want to start work this Monday; he preferred to just look out the window and wish that he were elsewhere. That day was drawing closer, now that the retirement plan was falling into place. He heard his door open and turned around to see Dale McMullen walking into his office, carrying two cups of coffee with him. "How was your weekend, Harris?" he asked.

"Oh, pretty good," Harper replied. "I spent some time thinking about PLAN SAIL. Came up with a nice twist. The sixty-one footer is kind of small for the stuff we want to do with it, so I got to thinking, mostly about Greenpeace and their operation. What if we get an honest-to-God ship? Something like an old tuna clipper, or trawler, or something about that size? It’ll look a little more impressive, and still be the money pit we need. Then when we’re ready, we can sell it, and downsize to something like the sixty-one footer as an economy measure. That’ll help justify the economizing we’ll need when we get to that point of the plan."

"Sounds good," McMullen said. "Sounds respectable, for that matter. I’d really rather go out helling around on the sixty-one footer, but if it’ll help cloud the financial picture, so much the better."

"Well, I think that maybe you and I don’t want to be too directly involved with it," Harper said. "After all, it shouldn’t look like a pleasure boat. Maybe you or I could take a trip when we need the publicity value."

"You’re saying put someone else in charge of it?"

"Yeah, that insulates us a little," Harper said.

"Got any ideas who?"

Harper shrugged. "We’ll need a regular captain, but we’ll also need a representative from the Defenders. Considering that it’ll be about spring before we’re ready to go, Heather could be available. She has that interest in whales, anyway, and she’s certainly capable of handling the responsibility. That’s kind of a penny-ante thing we’ve got her stuck doing."

"Might not be a bad idea," Dale said. "She’s still freezing her butt, I guess. This’ll make it look like a nice reward for this Spearfish Lake thing. I got some e-mail from her this morning, wondering what the status of the funding is."


"I haven’t been able to talk to Jenny Easton personally," McMullen said. "I got this Blake guy she keeps around, and told him we need another fifty grand for legal expenses and to keep our operative there. He told me that she wasn’t going to be able to do anything until after the first of the year."

"Well, that’s not very far off," Harper said. "I hate to keep Heather dangling on a string, though. She hasn’t sounded too happy in her reports."

McMullen shook his head. "I think we can leave her there for another month or two. Say, the first of February. If we haven’t got any more funds out of Jenny Easton, let’s pull the plug on this whole snake thing. With PLAN SAIL, the Jenny Easton funds aren’t that important, anyway. Her donations are tied to the operation, and she monitors what’s going on with it, so we have to justify what we’re doing. It’s not like it’s just a general donation, like the money we got from her promos. I had plans for that being a big cash cow, especially if we could drag it out, but if we’re going to turn straight, there’s no point in trying to push it very hard."

"Sounds strange when you say it," Harper said, with a wry grimace. "But there it is. What do you want to do about Heather?"

"Bring her back here and give her something else to do. This ship thing might be just the ticket, and it’ll get rolling about then. That ship is a hell of a good idea you had, Harris. If we get more money out of Jenny Easton, then we can leave her there. The publicity won’t hurt. I’ll write her a letter and tell her to stick it out just a little while longer."

"She doesn’t sound too happy," Harper observed. "Maybe we’d just better write it off now, and be done with it."

"No," McMullen said. "For two reasons. First, Heather knows, or at least thinks, that we have a couple months worth of funds left, and she’ll wonder why we’re giving up. And, what the hell, she may be right. She may be able to pull off a cheap victory that we can trumpet. Just because we’re backing off on the skim doesn’t mean that we can stop fundraising. There are still projects to support, payrolls to meet, and like that."

"It just means that we don’t have to work so hard at it," Harper agreed. "That’s good, too, since we need to be winding down a little. That’ll help fuzz things up, too."

Harris and McMullen sat in the office for a good half hour, drinking coffee and talking about projects and other things. All the while, McMullen was keeping a mental list of things that needed to be accomplished as a result of the conference. There were several items, the first being to investigate the potential cost of a proper ship. It seemed a shame that they couldn’t talk in terms of the sixty-one-foot sloop; the one he had sailed on a couple weeks before had been a sweetheart. But, Harris had been right, he realized; an honest ship would seem like less of a toy and more of a tool. After all, look what Cousteau had accomplished with a tiny World War II surplus minesweeper.

Heather and her problem were about fourth on the list. He spent some time thinking about the whole affair. If they weren’t going to skim Jenny Easton’s contribution again, then there was no point in asking for as much as he’d told Blake Walworth. With the money being earmarked, it could be traced too easily. A lawsuit could eat cash up in a hurry, of course, but then they could go back for more funds, if they had to.

The whole deal had been a waste of time and money, anyway. One of his best operatives tied up for months, doing nothing, and complaining about it. Something needed to be done about that, too.

A letter could hold Heather for a while. He turned to his computer terminal, accessed a word processing program, then stared at the screen for a while. Finally, he started to write:

Both Harris and I are quite pleased with the work that you’ve done on this project so far. We had hopes that it would be more or less settled by now, so we could have you back in Los Angeles, but events apparently have moved at their own pace.

This is intended to be at least partly a memo for the record. As you are aware, the funds available from our donor for the Spearfish Lake project are limited, and are running low. We anticipate being able to keep you on this project through the first of February, but we probably won’t be able to continue much after that date unless more funds are forthcoming from the donor. As you are also aware, the donor closely monitors activities there, and we assume is pleased with recent events, although we have not been able to check.

We do not anticipate being in contact with the donor until the middle of January. At that time, we intend to ask for $25,000 to continue the project, and for legal expenses. However, once we are able to contact the donor, who is located here in southern California, we feel confident that funding will be continued, but this is not totally assured.

Therefore, you are hereby authorized to initiate legal actions if you feel it necessary. However, try to minimize expenses, in case the funds are not forthcoming and it becomes necessary to terminate the project.

McMullen looked at what he’d written, and frowned. That covered the needed bases, but should he tell her about the ship project yet? Maybe he’d better not. If Jenny Easton were to come up with more money for them, then it might be necessary to keep Heather in Spearfish Lake for an indefinite period. There was no point in getting her hopes up. Maybe if she were to stay the winter, she’d be glad to get back to L.A. and her old job, where her best talent could be put to use. After all, that had been the main idea behind sending her to Spearfish Lake in the first place.

He read over the letter once again. That ought to do the job, he thought. He tagged it for Heather’s e-mail box, and started to clear the screen to go on to the next project, before he realized that since he’d called it a memo for the record, he ought to send her a signed hard copy.

Without a second thought, he hit the "Print" key. When the printer quit stuttering, he took the page, signed it, and threw the letter in his outgoing mail box.

His secretary could put it in an envelope and stamp it; he had other problems to deal with.

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