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 43

Mike was feeling somewhat better on Tuesday. He wasn’t anywhere near back to normal, yet, but it was Tuesday at the Record-Herald, and Tuesday was a day you didn’t miss unless you were the subject of a funeral, so he worked all day at no more than half power, then took Wednesday off to recover.

He slept late, then got up, got a cup of coffee he really didn’t want, and plopped down in his chair in the living room. He felt like reading, but couldn’t think of anything that interested him enough. Daytime TV was trash, of course. He picked up the remote and turned on the VCR; maybe someone had left a tape in it that was worth watching, although the odds were that it was more of Henry’s cartoons.

It wasn’t cartoons; it was the tape that Kirsten had made at the finish line on Sunday. He had already seen it seventeen times at least, but he watched the climactic moments once again: the teams racing across the ice, pounding along side by side, Tiffany so tiny behind the drive bow of the sled, but so intense and dedicated. Once again, he heard Kirsten’s yell of "Come on, Tiffany," shouted right into the video camera’s microphone, and once again he followed the teams racing down the chute as Kirsten had panned to follow them across the finish line. He and Mark had seen the tape the first time as they sat shivering in the hot tub an hour after it happened, and though they’d watched this segment several times, they couldn’t fault Ryan Clark’s judgment of the viewfinder playback that Ringo had about a nose-length as they’d crossed the line in the snow. After Josh and Tiffany had driven the dogs back home and put them back on their tethers, they’d come in, watched it too, and agreed. Josh then borrowed Mike’s VW Rabbit, took Tiffany down to the store, bought a twelve-pack of Coke, and presented it to her.

That was a twelve-pack that would go unopened and undrunk. It sat on the bookshelf in the living room, right now, with Jackie’s neat freehand lettering on it: 1988 WARSAW RUN CHAMPION, TIFFANY LANGENDERFER-MCMAHON. What a proud kid she’d been!

It was rather depressing when he thought about it. All in all, the promised six-pack of beer was the most expensive he’d never had. To put all the time, the money, and the work into those great dogs he had, and to have to sit shivering in a hot tub watching their greatest moment on the VCR was rather anticlimactic, to say the least. He and Mark had already agreed that the finish of this race really didn’t settle the question of who has the faster team, and agreed they’d try to settle it again next year.

The phone rang. Mike paused the VCR, and picked it up. "Hello?"

"Hi," said an unfamiliar voice. "Is this Mike McMahon?"

Probably a sales call; it would be just his luck. "Yes."

"Are you the Mike McMahon in that big story in the Camden Press today?"

"Haven’t seen the Press," Mike admitted. "I’m not sure why there would be anything about me in it, anyway."

"Aren’t you the Mike McMahon who ran a dogsled from Spearfish Lake to Warsaw, and then had your daughter finish the race for you after you got sick?"

"You mean that’s in the Press?" Mike replied, amazed. They’d run a small story in the Record-Herald, and a photo, on a page with a bunch of other happenings from the Winter Festival.

"Yeah, there’s a photo of the finish, and another one, of your daughter hugging her lead dog. Nice story, too."

"I’ll be damned," Mike said. "I’ll have to get a copy." Several, in fact, for framing and scrapbooks. There must have been a reporter around, looking for features.

"Did you know that’s the longest dogsled race that’s ever been held in this state, at least that I can find anything out about anyway?"

Mike shrugged, as if the guy on the other end of the phone could hear it. "I didn’t know that, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t know of any other dogsled racing in this state."

"Well, we do have a little," the voice on the phone said. "I guess I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Greg Mears; I’m president of the Camden Dogsled Association. I was wondering if you and Gravengood would be interested in bringing your teams down for the state championships this weekend."

Mike was speechless. There were other real, honest-to-God dog teams around the area? He’d never heard of any, and he’d had feelers out for months. "I don’t know," he said, shyly. "It’s not like we have real dog teams. All we have are a bunch of mutts we rescued from the dog pound and trained up the best we could. We had some help from an old guy over in Warsaw who used to run dogs on a trap line thirty years ago. We built our sleds ourselves, harnesses, everything. I’ve never even seen a dog team in person, except for our own two teams. I’d be sort of embarrassed to show up with them around real teams run by real mushers."

"If you have five-dog teams that can go a hundred miles in twenty hours and finish on a dead run, you have real dog teams," Mears said. "We’re likely to be the ones embarrassed. Look, we may call it the state championships, but no one can claim they’re not. There’s not a lot of us, and we’re pretty casual. I’ve talked to a couple of the guys this morning, and they’d like to meet you."

"I’ll have to ask Mark," he said. "I don’t think he’s got anything going this weekend, but with him, you never know."

"Bring along that daughter of yours, and that Archer kid, too. Right at the moment, they’re the most famous dog mushers in the state. Is he Mark’s son, or something?"

"Mark’s brother-in law. Half brother-in-law, actually, but he’s young enough to be his son. I know he’d like to come if he’s not working. You got a number I can call you back? I’ll try and track Mark down."

In a minute, Mike had Jackie on the phone. "Is Mark around?" he asked. "He’s not going to believe the phone call I just had."

"He should be at the office," Jackie said. "He wasn’t planning on going out in the field that I know of. What’s this all about?"

"Interesting news," Mike said expansively. "We are not alone."

*   *   *

"I’m still not too sure about this," Mark said as he and Josh rode down the highway outside of Camden the following Saturday morning. Mike, Tiffany, and the wives were in Mike’s car, behind them. It was a nice day to be out, clear, with a gentle breeze. It was still cold, but showed promise of warming up.

"At the worst, we’re bound to learn something," Josh said. "Face it, everything we learned was from Jim, and it’s all from thirty years ago, or longer than that even. Everything else is from books or TV."

"I don’t know," Mark said. "I mean, our dogs have done pretty well for us, but how are they going to stack up against real dog teams?"

"That’s got to be the place," Josh said, changing the subject. "Mike said the guy told him Evergreen Golf Course, right on the west edge of Crestone."

"Sure aren’t many vehicles around," Mark commented.

"We’re still a little early. According to Mike, they’re going to set the course about ten, meet at eleven, start racing after the meeting. It’s only 9:30 now."

Even as they pulled into the parking lot, they weren’t sure they were in the right place. There was a car and a van with an enclosed trailer. It wasn’t until they noticed a dogsled tied to the top of the trailer that they were sure they were where they were supposed to be and dogsledding might actually happen. They parked the truck and got out; Mike pulled the car in next to Mark’s truck, which had the dog box on the back, the two sleds on top, and five canine heads poking out holes in each side of the dog box.

They no more than got out of the truck when a man about Mark and Mike’s age, a little shorter and solider than either of them, came over from the van where there were three Siberian huskies tied on a picket line between the van and the trailer. He had a head full of black hair and a big black beard, both shot with gray. "I don’t know you," he said with a big grin, "so you must be from Spearfish Lake. I’m Greg Mears."

"Pleased to meet you," Mike said, sticking out his hand and introducing himself, and the rest of the group.

"Glad you could make it," Mears said. "With you two, this is going to be the biggest field we’ve had in years. There’s not very many of us, so we have to stick together."

"We’re still a little surprised that there’s more than just us two," Mark said. "You guys keep a low profile."

"Well, it’s not from the lack of trying," Mears said. "For a while, we were down to just four of us who could get together, but it’s picked up in the last couple of years, especially since Libby Riddles in ’85, and then Susan Butcher again last year. We get together once a month in the winter for a little racing and a hot dog roast, and we had six teams last month. You guys are going to make eight."

"That’s all?" Mike asked.

"Well, there’s a guy over in Bismarck who has a recreational team, but he doesn’t race. We think there’s a few people who get out now and then and screw around with a couple of dogs, and there’s got to be a few people skijoring that we don’t know about. Actually, most of us have just pretty much recreational teams that we race a little, mainly for the excuse to get together. So when we read about a hundred-mile race in a big spread in the Press with some people we’d never heard of, it surprised all of us a lot."

Mark relaxed significantly; Mike did, too. Maybe they weren’t going to look so silly, after all. "Look, we’ve never done any racing, except for that deal last weekend," Mark said. "And, we sort of set it up to suit what we wanted to do, anyway. You’re going to have to run us through the drill for real racing."

"It’s pretty casual, like I said on the phone," Mears said. "We keep the course short, since we have to trade dogs around a little to make up the larger teams, and that means some of the dogs have to run the course twice so everybody can get a run in. Our main events are the five-dog races, since we can usually put together a five-dog team without much switching. We do run a seven-dog event, and that one takes a lot of switching. We also run a three-dog, so everybody can run their own teams without borrowing dogs and having to switch around. Everybody kicks in twenty bucks, so we can pay the gal who owns the golf course something and have a few bucks left over for trophies."

Both Mike and Mark reached for their wallets. "Not this time," Mears said. "You guys are my guests today."

"Daddy, can I run a race?" Tiffany asked.

"I don’t know," he replied, and turned to Greg. "What do you think?"

"You must be Tiffany," Mears said. "You raced those dogs last weekend?"

"I finished for Daddy, after he got sick," the little girl confirmed.

"Well, you proved you know how to handle a dog team," Mears smiled. If it’s all right with your daddy, it’s all right with me."

"How about the three-dog race?" Mike said. Agreeing to have Tiffany finish for him last weekend had come when he was at a point of near-delirium, but she’d done so well that he couldn’t deny her the opportunity of another run. Maybe with three dogs, she couldn’t get into too much trouble.

"That’d be neat, Daddy."

Mike turned to Josh. "You want to run, too? That way, we’ll all get to run."

Josh smiled. "Of course, I would."

"We can either diddle the teams around and let you run in the five-dog, or you can run the seven-dog," Mike suggested.

"Whatever you guys decide," Josh said.

Mark smiled. He knew Josh had taken some ribbing at school from letting a ten-year-old girl beat him in the race the previous weekend. Maybe this would make it up to him. "How about if Mark and I pick up where we left off last weekend, with five dogs, and let you run the seven-dog?"

"Fine with me," he smiled.

"You ladies like to help out?" Mears said to Kirsten and Jackie. "Like I said, there’s not a lot of us, and it works better if everybody pitches in. My wife, Vicky, could use some help with the timekeeping, and there’s plenty of other things to do."

"Sure, I don’t mind," Kirsten said. "Better than just standing around in the cold."

"Yeah, me too," Jackie agreed.

"Glad to have you," Mears said, and turned back to Mark and Mike. "Do your leaders take commands real good?"

"We like to think so," Mark replied. "We don’t know how ours compare to anyone else’s, though."

"Do they take gee and haw out in the open pretty good, off a trail?"

"They do now," Mike said. "It was a hell of a lot of work getting them there though."

"Well, what we do to set the course is we rig up a big dog team and run a groomer around, rather than using a snow machine," Mears said. "It usually takes ten or twelve dogs, with two or three guys riding the groomer. If you’d like to give your dogs some exercise, we can take them, maybe hook a couple of my Sibes into the gangline. That’ll also let you guys a look at the course, too."

"Yeah, why not?" Mike agreed.

"They’d like getting some exercise," Mark admitted. "We didn’t have them out much this week, since we didn’t feel up to it. Josh and Tiffany got them out for a while a couple of nights after school, though."

They started getting the dogs out of the dog box on Mark’s truck, while Greg went over to the trailer and got out a funny-looking box that looked sort of like the thing that someone might mix a small batch of cement in, with a handlebar attached to the front at about waist height. "What’s that thing?" Josh asked.

"This is the groomer," Greg explained. "It really doesn’t work too well. The miracle is that it works at all." Josh went over to help him carry it over to the front of the truck, while Tiffany laid out a twelve-dog gangline. They began hooking up dogs; with that many hands, it didn’t take long. Last to be hooked up were two of the white Siberians, running in wheel.

"Those sure are good-looking dogs," Josh commented.

"They’re purebreds," Mears explained. "I like showing dogs, and I like Sibes. I got to thinking that it was a shame that they didn’t pull a sled once in a while, and the next thing you know, here we are. I don’t get them out as much as I’d like to, or should for the dogs for that matter."

They were good-looking dogs, with nice coats, immaculately brushed and gleaming, and they stood out at the end of the long line of the Spearfish Lake dogs, a few of which looked a lot like huskies, but more of which didn’t look like much of anything recognizable.

They were just getting everything hooked up when a pickup truck with a cap wheeled into the parking lot. A medium-sized, balding man got out. "Didn’t think you were going to make it, Woody," Greg said to the new arrival.

The new arrival shrugged. "Figured I’d better," he said. "I don’t know when I’ll be able to do this again. You had any luck?"

"Not really," Greg told him. "A couple of nibbles. We’d better get the course set, and then we’ll get a minute. By the way, this is the gang from Spearfish Lake I told you about." He made introductions.

"I read about that," Woody said. "You guys had a real good trip. I’d have liked to have gone with you."

"Yeah, me too," Greg agreed, then turned to the Spearfish Lake group. "OK, we gotta get some butts in the groomer to weight it down. If one of you guys wants to drive the team, the rest of us can sort of squeeze in there the best we can." Mark wound up behind the handlebars, while Greg and Mike and Josh squeezed together on the floor, Greg with an armload of plastic flags on little wire stakes. "Get ’em moving," Greg said, "Then go right as soon as we’re out of the parking lot, and I’ll tell you where to head next."

"All right," Mark said, then called to the dogs, "Gravediggers, UP! Beatle Hounds, UP! HIKE! HIKE!" The groomer bounced heavily across the ice at the edge of the parking lot, then smoothed out as it climbed up onto the snow. It wasn’t moving very fast; the groomer with four people on it had a lot of drag. A few seconds later, Mark added, "Cumulus, Ringo, GEE! GEE!"

"Hey, nice clean turn," Greg said, sticking a flag into the snow on one side; the groomer left behind a trail of snow, packed down several inches. "You’ve really got those leaders trained. Go down, oh, fifty yards or so, and then bend it to the left a little. We’re gonna lay out a short course and a long course."

"You’re running this thing," Mark said.

"Hey, you guys wouldn’t happen to know of anybody who’d like a team that’s all up and running, would you?"

"Might be," Mike said. "We’ve had several people in Spearfish Lake tell us they’d like to get started, and one guy in Warsaw. He’d probably jump at the chance."

"I would, if I could," Josh said. "Dad wouldn’t mind, but we’d have to talk Mom into it. What’s the deal?"

"Woody, there. He’s got a five-dog team, one of the best we’ve got. His damn company transferred him to Houston, of all the damn places. He’s gonna have to live in an apartment. No place to keep the dogs, no place to run them, so he can’t keep them. Damn shame. He’s willing to give it all away to someone who’d keep them together as a team and run them, the dogs, the sled, all the gear, everything. We haven’t been able to turn up anybody, but maybe we can split the dogs up among the rest of us."

Josh shook his head. "I’d love to do it, but there’s no way I could keep the dogs at home."

"Well, we can give Fred a call when we get home," Mike said. "He sounded real interested last weekend."

"I’ll tell Woody we’ve got a possible when we get back," Greg said. "He seemed pretty down today. I know he hates to think about breaking everything up. Maybe that’ll make him feel a little better. Glad I mentioned it."

It took perhaps half an hour to lay out and mark a couple miles of race course, in kind of a lopsided, crooked figure eight. Mears explained that the three-dog and five-dog heat races would use the short course of about a mile, and the finals would run the long course, about twice as long. There weren’t any heat races for the seven-dog race; since there weren’t enough teams to make a qualifier worthwhile, and that race would use the long course. "We could stand a little longer course," he explained, "but this is only a nine-hole golf course, and there’s only so much room." Over the course of the half hour he managed to draw much of the story out of Mark and Mike getting their teams, and running the race to Warsaw. "You guys did good," he told them. "You’ve got a bunch of good dogs, and they’re really well trained."

When they got back to the parking lot, there were more mushers and dogs around. There were now maybe ten cars in the parking lot, and a couple dozen dogs, not counting the ones pulling the groomer. "Looks like everybody’s here," Greg said. "Let’s picket these dogs, and we can go talk to Woody for a minute. You guys might like to see this team."

Woody did have a pretty good-looking team. It was made up of five dogs, from two to six years old, and four of the five looked a lot like huskies, although there was a lot of mutt there. The fifth dog, well, it didn’t look much like a husky. It had floppy ears, a coat that was curly, going on tangled, and rather non-descript markings, black mixed with brown. "This is Crosstie," Greg explained. "Except maybe for your two, Crosstie is about the best leader we’ve got. We usually use her for setting the course, since she steers better than any of the other leaders."

Josh looked hard at the dog, at all the dogs. It was hard to tell without seeing them run, but they looked to him like they had the potential of being a pretty good team. Somebody who wanted to take the time to work with them could have something, he was sure.

"Sure hope you guys can find someone who would like to have them," Woody said. "It’s taken a lot of work to build them up into a team, and I’d hate to see them busted up or sent to the pound."

"We can probably find somebody," Mark promised.

It took a while longer to get organized. Mears explained how the start and finish line was run, and Kirsten and Jackie volunteered to help out. Mike and Mark and Josh and Kirsten took a little time to wander around and check out the other dogs, and were a little relieved. Except for Mears’ spectacular Siberians, everybody else was running more-or-less huskies and what only could be described as mutts, like a lot of the Spearfish Lake dogs, and they lost most of what was left of their embarrassment. These weren’t high-end racers, just normal people who liked to mess around with dogs – any dogs – and with dogsleds, like they did.

After a while, everybody gathered around Mears’ van for a quick meeting, and the Spearfish Lake mushers were introduced to the rest of the group. "OK, what we’ll do is run the five-dog qualifiers, two runs on the short course, best run of the two to qualify the top four for the final," he explained. "Then, we’ll run the finals on the long course, and break for lunch and a quick club meeting. Then after lunch, we’ll do the three-dog, same setup, and after we’ve finished that, we’ll run the seven-dog, two runs, no qualifiers, best time wins. If we’ve got some time left, then maybe we can screw around a little, let the wives run, or maybe have a pulling contest. Does that sound all right to everybody?"

After a few warm-up runs, the timed racing got under way. Runs were timed individually, with a run starting every few minutes as a musher got ready. After the runs, the times were posted on a large sheet of paper with a felt pen.

They were in for a shock once the first round of qualifying runs were under way: Mark’s 3:12 qualifier was the best of the round, with Mike’s 3:14 second, followed by Woody’s 3:21. After that the times dropped off rapidly; the next best qualifier was by a three-dog team, filled out with a couple of Mears’ Siberians, at just under four minutes. The second round was faster, with the course settled a little more. Mark got his qualifier down to 3:05, with Mike right behind at 3:07, and Woody at 3:12, but no one else in the three-minute bracket.

"Jeez, would you check those numbers out," Mark said as he, Mike and Josh studied the results. Part of what was amazing was that they’d previously conceded that Mike’s team was usually slightly better at sprints.

"I’ve got a couple of dogs that aren’t having a real good day," Mike rationalized. "And, I think you’re in and out of that sharp turn out by the fifth green faster than I am. Straight ahead, I still think I’d be in front."

"Yeah, but shit, we’re the class of the field, right out of the dog box, the first time we’ve ever been in a sprint race." Mark said.

"I see what’s happening," Josh said. "Don’t you?"

"I don’t follow you," Mark shook his head.

Josh smiled. "I’ve got to say, objectively speaking, while we may not have the best dogs here, we’ve got the best trained dogs. More important, we’ve got the best conditioned ones. Most of these guys are lucky to get out with their teams once or twice a week. We’ve been running our dogs virtually every day since last summer. They’re simply in better shape."

Mark nodded. "You could be right."

"I know I’m right," Josh said. "Look at Greg’s dogs."

"They’re pretty, I gotta say that," Mike said.

"They’re fat," Josh snorted. "Compare them to ours. Yeah, ours may not be as pretty, but they’re lean and muscular. Those Siberians are couch potatoes. I talked to Woody. He’s had his team out once since last month, and then just for a short run. If he’d trained the way we’ve trained, he’d blow our doors off. Same thing with Greg and those Siberians."

"You know, I think the kid has got something, there," Mark smiled.

Mike shook his head. "It’s a little hard to believe that we’ve got the best teams in the state."

Josh shrugged. "Look at the numbers. They could run longer races if they wanted, but they don’t, simply because the dogs aren’t able to run longer races now, and they know it."

Greg’s voice sounded from the start line. "All right, let’s get the finals done and have some lunch. Qualifiers are Gravengood, McMahon, Guthrie, and Yost. Remember, we’re running the long course for the finals."

In the finals, Mike managed to salvage bragging rights with a 5:57 to win, but they would debate for years how it would have come out if Mark and Cumulus hadn’t had a major attack of brain fade, and taken the corner onto the short course. By the time they’d realized what they’d done, and cut back to the long course, they’d lost enough time to let Woody’s team slide into second place by one second.

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