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 41

February 1988

The sun was low on the horizon and would be setting soon. It was cold out on the ice of Spearfish Lake, a hundred yards out from the city beach; a stiff wind was blowing, but at least it was clear. That wasnít entirely a blessing; while it would mean that theyíd have a moon after a while, the clear, windy night would be cold, and there were a lot of places where the railroad line ran through open country, where the wind could get at them.

Mark felt butterflies in his stomach as he looked down the line of dogs, two teams standing side by side, the sleds tied to pickup trucks. Ahead of the dogs stretched two rows of snow fencing, side by side, and there was a crowd standing behind the fence, looking on.

This was going to be a long night, and theyíd never run the dogs this far before. They had made the run down the railroad line from Warsaw the previous weekend without any real difficulties, but that had been the longest theyíd ever run the dogs at one time, and tonight and tomorrow, theyíd have to go more than twice as far. He didnít doubt that the dogs could make it, but it was still a big step into the unknown.

Mike turned to him. "What do you think about the weather?" he asked.

"Could be better," Mark shrugged. "Better than last weekend, a little, I think. Thereís no reason not to do this."

"Thatís what I thought youíd say," Mike said. "You feel any better?"

"Iím OK," Mark said. "Just nerves and excitement, I guess. Iíll feel better when we get out on the trail."

"Yeah, Iíve got the same thing," Mike said. "Looks like weíre going to have just enough daylight to make it to the railroad before we lose the light entirely."

"Thatís how we planned it," Mark agreed.

A public address system boomed with Ryan Clarkís voice. "Three minutes to the start of the Little Iditarod dogsled race to Warsaw and back. First dogís nose over the finish line tomorrow afternoon wins the race. Be here for the finish!"

Kirsten and Tiffany and Henry clustered around Mike, giving him a big hug. "Good luck, and be careful," Kirsten said. "Donít do anything crazy."

"I wonít," Mike promised.

"Take good care of the dogs," Tiffany said.

"I will," Mike agreed. He looked over at Mark, who had Jackieís arms around him. "Weíll take it easy. Kirsten, Iíll see you up at the 919 crossing when we stop."

"Two minutes to the start," Clarkís voice boomed. "Will the mushers please take their positions."

Mike and Mark broke away from their families, walked to the center of the ice between the two dogsleds, stuck out their hands, and shook. "Once we get out of sight of the crowd, Iíll hold up for you," Mike said.

"If youíre leading," Mark smiled.

"One minute," the loudspeaker boomed.

Mark and Mike went over to their sleds, untied the tielines to the trucks, and stepped down hard on the sled brakes. There was nothing more to do but to go ahead and do it.

"Gravediggers, up," Mark said, fairly quietly, not wanting the dogs to bolt.

"Beatle Hounds, up," Mike ordered in the same tone.

"Ten seconds," the speaker boomed. Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . GO!"

A starterís pistol cracked, and both Mike and Mark yelled, "HIKE! HIKE! HIKE! HIKE! HIKE! to their teams.

A cheer arose that they could barely hear through their heavy parkas as the dogs took off with a wild acceleration. They hadnít been driven down, but brought down in the dog box, just so their starting mad rush would look better for the crowd, and they came through with one of the wildest rushes that Mike and Mark had experienced. The crowd got to them, too, the cheers leading them on, with Mike and Mark still roaring, "HIKE! HIKE! HIKE! GO! HIKE!

The teams were still neck and neck as they came to the end of the double row of snow fencing, the roar of the crowd starting to fall behind them now. The mad rush continued; the dogs were as up as Mark and Mike had ever seen them. After a quarter mile or so, both could begin to perceive that Ringo was starting to pull ahead of Cumulus, ever so slightly.

Theyíd gone a couple of miles, and were nearing the turn off of the lake before the opening rush began to die out and the teams began to slow just a little. By that time, Mike had just about pulled even with Cumulus. He turned to yell back at Mark, "Iíll take point for a while."

"All right," Mark yelled back. "You won the drag race."

They turned off on the beach road that Tiffany had followed a month before, and ran up it a ways, to where the Camden and Spearfish Lake Railroad crossed the road. "Gee! Gee!" Mike yelled, and the Beatle Hounds turned onto the railroad tracks, with Cumulus and the Gravediggers right behind.

Once they got settled down on the tracks, Mike let his team slow to a steady trail trot, perhaps eight or ten miles an hour, half the speed or less than theyíd roared across the lake. The rail line was easy going, as theyíd expected; it was snow-covered, and only the two steel rails poked through the snow now that Markís father-in-law had plowed it out the day before.

It was getting dark, now, really dark; the moon wouldnít rise for a couple of hours, yet. Mike reached up to turn on the battery-powered headlamp he wore strapped to his head, just to put a little light on the scene. Mostly he was letting Ringo find the way, not that there was any chance that heíd get lost, since snow was piled high on either side of the tracks. Mark wore a headlamp too, but didnít have it turned on to save the batteries.

For a moment, Mike looked back, to see that Mark was about twenty or thirty yards behind. The eyes of the five dogs glowed in the flash of the headlamp, and their breaths smoked in the cold as they rushed down the black alleyway between the two lines of trees.

They ran like that for an hour or more, quietly running through the darkened woods, with only the single headlamp to light the way. It was a quiet, mystical ride, with only the swoosh of the sled runners underneath them, and an occasional jingle of a harness strap striking a metal ring.

It seemed very quickly that they came up on the County Road 919 crossing. Markís pickup truck and Kirstenís car waited there, along with Josh and Kirsten and Tiffany and Henry and Jackie. It was a little earlier than theyíd really wanted to stop, but they had to take advantage of the places where they were available. A "whoa!" and a touch of the sled brakes brought the teams to a stop, and tielines were quickly thrown onto the vehicles. Josh and Jackie busied themselves with setting warm water from an insulated jug out for the dogs. They lapped away at it, while Mike and Mark went down the line of them, with a quick pet and a snack for each one, along with a quick check to see if any of their paws were icing up and needed booties; none did.

"Howíd it go?" Josh asked, pouring coffee from another thermos.

"Pretty well," Mike replied. "We settled whoís got the faster sprinters, anyway."

"Just by a hair," Mark said, taking a cup of coffee. The first sip felt good going down, after the chill of the ride, but when it hit his stomach, it didnít feel quite as good. He took another sip, then decided he didnít want any more, and threw the rest out into the snow.

The 919 pit stop had been planned to just be a quick one, a short breather for the dogs, an inspection, water, and a snack. They were still going well, and there was no reason to linger. Josh loaded each sled with more jugs full of hot water wrapped in blankets, more snacks, and more coffee for the mushers. The next stop would have to be out in the middle of nowhere, with no way to get the truck to them.

"Go home, and grab a quick nap," Mark suggested. "Weíll see you in Warsaw, about two."

"Iím just sorry I canít be there," Kirsten said. "But somebodyís got to stay home with the kids."

"Weíll be all right," Mike promised. "You want to lead?" he asked Mark.

"Iíll take it for an hour or so," Mark said. "Then you can take it again." He got on the runners of his sled, turned on his headlamp, and untied the team. He was gone, and a few seconds later, Mike was following him.

They didnít get too far before there was more light in the woods. A nearly full moon began to peek through the trees, and after a ways, Mark switched off his headlamp and let the moon light his way. Through the barren trees, Mike could see a single light to the north, the cottage where the winter watchman at the West Turtle Lake Club stayed. How different it seemed, after all the activity of the summer, how empty, how lonely, but right at the moment, there was no place else that he would rather be on a cold winterís night than where he was, riding the runners of his sled behind his great-running dog team. Volleyball had never been like this.

Mike took over the lead again just before they finished with the pine barrens and they began to slant down the long, gentle slope to the Spearfish River bridge.

The dogs had not been very happy about the bridge when theyíd tried it the week before, and Mark and Mike had agreed that the dogs thought that there could be no worse moment in a sled dogís life. From their first step on the trestle, they had acted like they were going to plunge through the air for forty-five seconds, then be bitten to death by wolverines at the bottom. They had considered getting off the railroad grade, and crossing the river on the ice, but one look at the ice from the trestle the week before made that seem like not such a bright idea. So theyíd done the best they could, walking the teams across the trestle by hand three times to give the dogs the idea.

When they got to the trestle, they had already worked out what they were going to do. Mark set his snow hook in a nearby snowdrift, then walked behind Mike and the Beatle Hounds, holding a big flashlight high in the air to give the dogs some light to see where to step, while Mike, up front, led Ringo by a neckline. Once they got Mikeís team across, they snow hooked the dogs there and went back across the trestle, and then they did the same thing for Markís team. Once they had both teams set to snow hooks on the far side of the river, they were relieved. The crossing had gone much better than theyíd expected, and theyíd already decided to stop here and water and snack the dogs for a few minutes, to reward them for crossing without giving any problems.

Out in the middle of nowhere, it took a few minutes to get the dogs fed and watered by moonlight and flashlight, but when that was over with, Mike took a thermos from his padded carry bag, and poured coffee.

"None for me, thanks," Mark said.

"Donít want any? Itís cold out here."

"My stomachís feeling a little rocky," Mark admitted. "That last cup of coffee didnít set too well with me, back there at the 919 crossing."

"Suit yourself," Mike said, taking a sip of his.

Mike got through a couple of cups of coffee, while the dogs fed and rested. "You about ready to get on the move?" he asked finally.

"I guess so," Mark replied, sounding a little down.

"Hey, guy," Mike said. "You feeling all right?"

"Not real good," Mark admitted. "But we canít stop here."

"You better lead," Mike said. "Itís your turn, anyway."

"All right," Mark said, taking the snow hook from the snowdrift, and getting on his sled.

They ran on through the night, the moon getting higher in the sky as they climbed the gentle grade up out of the Spearfish River swamp, and began to run across the pine barrens east of Warsaw.

Mark was still in the lead, about an hour later, when out in the middle of nowhere, Mike heard him call "whoa!" to his dogs. Wondering what was going on, he called his own team to a halt. Just as he passed the Gravediggers, he could see Mark off to the side of the tracks, retching and throwing up.

As the Beatle Hounds came to a stop, Mike threw out the snow hook and ran back to Mark. "We just snacked the dogs," he said, not able to resist. "You donít have to give them more."

"Smartass," Mark said between retches.

"You all right?" Mike asked, getting serious now.

"I feel better already," Mark mumbled.

"You going to be able to make it to Warsaw? Thereís no place to stop here."

"I think so," Mark said. "Iím shaking so bad, I can barely stand up."

"You lead," Mike said. "We get to Warsaw, you can lie down for a while, and maybe youíll feel better. If you canít make it that far, weíll stop, double the teams, and put you in the sled basket."

"I can make it," Mark said, hoping he was right.

*   *   *

The snow was wet and dirty in the street lights, piled along the street curbs, not like the clean, pure, fresh snow of Spearfish Lake at all. There were crews out picking it up with loaders, piling it into dump trucks to be dumped in the river.

Unlike Spearfish Lake, the nationís capitol wasnít used to snow. It had been a real snowstorm, and it brought the whole city to a near halt. It was getting cleaned up now, but it had held attendance down at the annual meeting. As this was Washington D.C., there had been more reporters there than members, and there were a lot of reporters in town, even on a slow news day.

The president of the Defenders of Gaea had been happy about that. After the reporters wrote their stories and the news clips got onto the air, a lot of the damage that had been caused in the past two weeks would be on the way to being fixed.

"That wasnít nice," John Pacobel said to Heather Sanford as they got into their rental car to go back to the hotel.

"What wasnít nice?" the new president of the Defenders said. "Sticking you with the vice-president/treasurer job and a seat on the board? John, if Iím going to get things back on track, Iíve got to have someone I can trust and depend on."

"You could have warned me," he said. "Iíd just figured on casting the proxies, and heading on back to Spearfish Lake."

Heather sighed. "You canít go back to Spearfish Lake, not now," she said. "Youíve gotten too deep into this, and youíve gotten too deep into me." She shook her head. "God, what a miserable town. Iím going to hate to have to move here, after L.A., but this is where the power is. The only reason the Defenders had their office in L.A. was for the money, not the power."

"Youíre going to move the office to Washington?" he asked. "Iím not so sure thatís any better than Los Angeles."

"It wonít happen for a while, yet," Heather said. "Weíve got to get this whale project going to regain some credibility, and thatíll be handled better from Los Angeles."

"Iíve got a job," he protested. "Iím just taking administrative leave."

"Youíre also now qualified for your retirement benefits," she said. "You donít want to go back to Spearfish Lake and face the kids and the softball season again. You said that yourself. You wanted a new challenge. This is it. Besides, Iíve got to have someone I can rely on to run things while Iím out of action."

"What do you mean, while youíre out of action?"

Heather smiled. "I said youíd gotten very deep into me. Well, you really did, back at Christmas. Thereís a little ring at the bottom of a test tube that says that thereís another little Pacobel on the way."

"Youíre pregnant?"

"Thatís what the test tube says."

"Iím too old for that," he said. "Iím too old to raise another family."

"No, youíre not," she said. "You said yourself that you were a good father, and thereís no reason to think that you canít do as good a job with our child as you did with Linda. A better job, maybe. If itís a girl, you wonít have any of those awkward father-daughter discussions."

"God. Pregnant," he said, letting out a sigh. "That really puts the icing on the cake. All right, I guess I havenít got much choice."

"I donít want you to think Iím pushing you into it. I guess it looks like it, and maybe I am," she said, "But things have happened so quickly that there hasnít been time to do things the normal way. John, I want you with me badly. I need you with me badly. But, if you want to go back to Spearfish Lake, then thatís your right."

"Itís not a problem," he said. "To tell you the truth, I was getting awful tired of Spearfish Lake myself. I was getting awful tired of cruising, looking for ass, and having to come home to an empty house. Along about last summer, it had gotten to the point where it wasnít worth the trouble any longer. Itíll be good to be a father again."

"Good," Heather said. "Thereís no point in staying in D.C. any longer. Letís go to the hotel, get our stuff, and catch the redeye for L.A. Weíve still got a lot of work to do."

"Not L.A., John said, "Vegas."

"Why Vegas?"

"Jenny Easton is playing there tonight."

Heather shook her head. "You donít want to go to Las Vegas, just to catch a Jenny Easton show, do you?"

"Youíre the one who said thereís a lot to do," he smirked. "Thatís the quickest place I know of to get married."

"John," she said with a little alarm, "I hadnít thought as far ahead as getting married."

"Hey, Heather," he said, "In for a penny, in for a pound."

*   *   *

Josh and Jackie were totally amazed when they drove the pickup into Warsaw about 1:30 in the morning. Theyíd expected lights on in the fire station, and maybe Fred Linder to be hanging around, but there were people lining the street, and the fire station was full of more people, with all the trucks sitting out in the snow for more room inside. In front of the building, stretched across the street, was a banner, reading "WELCOME MUSHERS" hand lettered on it, with a fire truck spotlight playing on it to make sure it could be read.

The Warsaw fire departmentís ladiesí auxiliary had set up tables inside the building, and there were long trays of coffee and doughnuts set out. Only then did she and Josh realize that this dog race was a bigger deal than theyíd ever thought it could be.

Jackie only knew Linder slightly, since sheíd lettered a couple of the departmentís trucks, but she sought him out. "What the Sam Hill is going on, here?" she asked.

"Donít get much excitement in this town," Linder said, "But we decided it was time for a party."

"I didnít expect this," she said.

"Neither did I," Linder conceded. "I expected twenty or thirty people, but theyíve just kept coming and coming. The grocery store manager opened the place up and cleaned it out for the ladies. This has been the biggest thing to happen in this town all winter."

Just then, a radio speaker blared. "Warsaw Base, Warsaw 7," it called. "Theyíre just coming into town!"

A hubbub arose through the crowd, and the building emptied rapidly. "We got the loader out earlier tonight," Linder said, "and laid snow down into the street, so theyíd have a snow path to run on."

"Youíre really going all out, arenít you?" Jackie commented.

"Well, Jim Horton sort of said that he wishes my granddaddy were alive to see this," Fred said. "Too late to get started this winter, but I keep thinking about getting up a team of my own. We better get outside and watch this."

Outside, they looked up the street to see the flashing lights of the Warsaw Fire Departmentís grass truck coming up the street. Behind the truck, they could see a pair of dogsleds, one running behind the other, and a cheer arose from the crowd. Josh and Jackie knew that even though the dogs were tired, theyíd be excited by the hubbub, and ran out into the street to help corral them.

Mark was leading, and as they pulled in front of the fire station, he yelled, "whoa!" and Jackie reached for Cumulusí collar, while Fred grabbed the necklines of the swing dogs. Behind them, in the light from the station, she could see Josh dive on Ringo, and another man reach for Mikeís swing dogs.

"Wow," Mark said. "I didnít expect this."

"Weíve got picket lines and beds set up outside the station," Fred told them. "Letís just walk them over there."

Beside the station, there were two picket lines strung between trucks in a pool of light from the truck, with huge beds of straw for the dogs. Firemen were already pouring bowls of warm water for the dogs, and Josh ran to the truck for the dog food. "You set this up right," Mike said to Linder. "We didnít expect any of this."

"Jim told us what youíd need," Linder said. "Letís get these dogs picketed."

Mike turned to his team, took the harness off of George, and took him by the neckline to the nearest picket, where George lapped at the water bowl. As he returned to the sled, Mike could see someone leading Paul over to the picket line. "Jim!" he said in surprise. "I didnít expect to see you out here!"

"You think Iíd miss this?" he said. "Someone had to know what to do to get ready for you, and Iím the only musher left in this town."

"Not for long," Mike heard Fred say.

With all the help, it was only the work of a few minutes to get the dogs picketed. Inside, on the stove in the station, a huge vat of dog food was warming, and it wouldnít be long before the dogs were fed.

"Letís get out of the cold," Jim suggested. "Itís been years since Iíve been up this late.

Inside, Mike found Linder. "You got an EMT around?" he asked. "Markís putting up a brave front, but heís sicker than hell. Heís had to stop to puke three times in the last hour."

Mike and the EMT had to take Mark by the arm to lead him into the fire department office, away from the crowd. Jackie and Josh realized something was going on, and they followed. Mark collapsed into a chair. "God, I made it," he said, visibly weak. "I didnít think I was going to make that last bit. I was just about ready to stop and have you double the teams."

The EMT stuck a thermometer in his mouth. By now, he was shaking again. "Whatís going on?" Jackie asked, concerned.

"Markís been sick ever since we left the bridge," Mike said. "I donít know whatís wrong."

They stood in silence as the EMT took Markís pulse, and looked into his eyes. Finally, he pulled the thermometer from his mouth. "102.6" he reported. "Iím not a doctor, but it looks like youíve got the flu bug thatís been going around. You need to be home and in bed."

"God, Iíll never make it back to Spearfish Lake," he said. "I donít know how I made it here."

"Looks like the race is over," Mike said. "You win it, from leading at the halfway point."

"No, you go on and finish," Mark said. "Take both teams, if you want. Theyíll want someone to finish at Spearfish Lake."

"Iím not real crazy about going back up the trail by myself," Mike said, "And itíd be hard to get the dogs across the bridge by myself. So, thatís it. Josh, letís feed the dogs before we load them in the dog box."

"Hey, wait," Josh said. "If you donít mind, I could run Markís dogs back."

"Youíre not dressed for it," Mike said.

"Yeah, but Iíll be with you," Josh said. "I can take Markís Carhartts and parka and mukluks."

"What do you think, Mark?" Mike asked.

"Josh can do it if youíre willing," Mark said. "You better take point all the way, and keep looking back, though. Donít leave before first light. That first part of the trail is a bitch."

"Iíd better get you home," Jackie said. "Mike, is there anything youíre going to need from the truck?"

"Just leave the food and the thermoses," Mike said. "Weíll get them filled here, so long as someone can meet us where 919 comes out to Turtle Hill."

"It may be Kirsten," Jackie said. "Fred, would you please make sure they get out of here all right and call me just after they leave?"

"Sure thing," Fred said. "Iím going to send the crowd home, so Mike and Josh can get some sleep."

"Sorry it had to end like this," Mark said weakly. "But . . . damn!"

They heard Fredís voice outside. "All right," he said loudly. "Itís time for everybody to go home and let these guys and their dogs get some sleep. If you want to see íem start back, theyíll be leaving at 6:30."

Sleep would feel good, Mike thought. It was probably just from being cold and tired, but he was feeling a little rocky himself.

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