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 44

It was about one o’clock when the finals had been settled, the dogs were picketed in the parking lot, and everybody trooped into the golf course clubhouse. The course owner had the heat on and the coffeepot going. Hot dogs were fifty cents apiece, bags of chips the same. It was a fun time, talking to the other mushers, sharing experiences and stories with people who already liked dogsledding, and not have to explain the very basics to them first; they were soon among friends. While they were eating, Greg invited Mark and Mike to briefly tell the group about how they’d gotten their teams going, and about the race the weekend before, while Josh and Tiffany sat back in the corner, having an obviously intense whispered conversation.

After they’d finished, Greg got back to his feet. "All right, not a lot of club business," he said. "The big thing is next month’s race. Normally, it would be the second weekend, but Phyllis has a wedding she has to go to, so I thought we might kick it back to the third Saturday. The problem is, in March, it’s always a tossup whether we’re gonna have snow or not, and a week later is a week later. I know Phyllis doesn’t want us to run here if it’s getting sloppy. About all I can say is that I can check it out, and give all of you a call the day before if it’s gonna fly."

Mark whispered to Jackie for a second, and she nodded. He stuck up his hand, and Greg said, "Yeah."

"Look, you guys have been nice to us," Mark said. "If it’s too sloppy to run here, we should still have snow up in Spearfish Lake. You guys are welcome to come up to the farm. We can lay out a course around our training trails, and put on a pot of chili or something."

"I appreciate that, Mark," Greg said. "Phyllis, would it hurt your feelings if we went up there the second weekend and just wiped out March altogether?"

"Fine with me," the woman said from behind the counter.

"Well, if it’s all right with you, and all right with Mark and Jackie, let’s just plan on doing that, then," Greg said. "It’ll be nice to see some different countryside. Is your place hard to find?"

"No," Mark said. "Go past Spearfish Lake on the state road until you see a sign for ‘Spearfish Signs’, and follow the signs. It’s about a mile off the state road. I’ll invite some of the locals who’ve been talking about getting into this."

"Good, that’s settled, and thanks again, Mark. The rest of you, see Mark if you didn’t understand his directions. OK, let’s see. You all know about Woody, and our new friends may be able to help him out. Anybody else got anything?" He was quiet for a moment. "All right, let’s get on to the three-dog. First start, oh, in about twenty minutes. We’ll run it like we ran the five-dog. Any questions?"

*   *   *

"All right Tiffany, you’re up," Mike said a few minutes later. "I figure we can run Ringo and George, and Cumulus if it’s all right with Mark."

Tiffany shook her head. "No, Daddy. I’d really rather run Ringo with David and King, if it’s all right with Mr. Gravengood."

"David and King?" Mike frowned. "Those are about the two dumbest dogs we’ve got."

"Yes, Daddy. But they’re also the fastest. I’d really rather take George in the lead. He’s faster, but he’s not been proved as a leader yet."

"How do you know they’re the fastest?" Mark asked.

"Can’t you see it when they run?" Tiffany asked. "They’re always working harder than the other dogs, trying to run faster. And, Ringo is faster than Cumulus, at least for a short distance."

"All right," Mike said. "If that’s the way you want it, that’s what you get."

They harnessed up the dogs and walked the team over to the starting line. Greg had his three Siberians in the start chute when they got there; he was soon off and running with them. They moved Tiffany and the three dogs into the starting gate. "You ready, honey?" Vicky called from her table at the start line.

"Yes, Mrs. Mears," Tiffany said politely

"OK, I’ll count down from five, and you can go. Ready . . . five . . . four . . .

"UP! Tiffany yelled in a voice that had something of the crack of a whip in it. Mark, who was holding onto King, got the impression of a ten-year-old-girl drill sergeant.

" . . . two . . . one . . . MUSH!"

Mark and Mike dropped their hold on the two dogs. "HIKE! HIKE! HIKE!" Tiffany yelled. The dogs dug in and came off the starting line hard, as hard as Mark and Mike had ever seen, and Tiffany kicked behind the sled, trying to help take off some of the load. Mike began to wonder if he’d done the right thing in turning her loose. It seemed like things were moving much more quickly than before. Maybe it was just a father watching . . . but no, it wasn’t just a father watching; as they saw the team run hard around the course, closing on Greg Mears all the way.

They caught him at the final turn. From a hundred yards away, they could hear Tiffany yell "HAW! HAW!" and take the team off the broken trail to pass Mears on the inside through the deeper snow. As soon as she was past, she swung the dogs back into the cleared path, and kept yelling, "HIKE! HIKE!" at the top of her lungs, until they flashed across the finish line, a good ten seconds ahead of Mears. Once past the finish line, Tiffany yelled "EASY!" then, "COME GEE" and turned the team back to stop near the starting line, pointing the other way. She set the snow hook and got off the sled.

"Tiffany?" Mears said with a smile from the back of his sled. "Has anyone ever told you how you’re supposed to pass on a trail?"

"No, Mr. Mears," she said.

"If that ever happens again," he said. "You’re supposed to yell ‘Trail’ real loud, and the team ahead has to get off the trail. I’m sorry I got in your way."

"That’s all right, Mr. Mears," she said. "I hope I did all right."

"Well, if there’s any question about qualifying for the final, you can take another run," he said, then glanced over at the board, where the times were being posted. "But, I don’t think there’s going to be any question."

Tiffany’s time was a 2:57, compared to over five minutes for Mears.

Mark let out a whistle. "Hell, that’s ten seconds better than our best time with five dogs."

"Uh, Greg," Mike said. "I think we sorta screwed up a little. When Tiffany raced last weekend, we had a hundred pounds of ballast in her sled to even things out. I think maybe we should have done it again."

Mears shook his head. "It’s not going to matter much. It might add a few seconds to her time, but not enough. Nobody would still get near it."

Mears took a pass to stop and watch Tiffany’s second run a little later. In fact, so did everyone else. With a clear course in front of her, and no ballast in the sled, Tiffany was able to shave her time down to a 2:52.

"That’s a little scary, you know," Mears said to Mike and Mark after her time was posted.

"What do you mean?"

Mears smiled. "Don’t you see it? Most of the time, she’s just your normal ten year old, a little shy, and more polite than most kids. Put her on that sled, and set the timer running, and she turns as serious as a heart attack."

"I’ve seen that," Mark said. "I always thought she was concentrating because she had her hands full."

"She does," Greg said. "She’s working as hard as she can to get everything possible out of the run. I want to tell you, that kid is gonna go far."

While they were waiting for the rest of the qualification runs to be made, Mark asked Tiffany, "If you were going to run five dogs, which ones would you take?"

"Well, for out here, I’d want George and Midnight, along with the ones I have," she said. "But, for a race like you ran last weekend, I’d really rather have Cumulus than Ringo, and Shadow instead of David, and I think John, instead of King."

"Why those dogs?" Mark wanted to know.

"Well, both King and David want to run fast, but they want to run too fast, and can wear themselves out," she said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. "Cumulus is a little better at following commands, I think."

Mark shook his head. Once she had pointed it out, he knew she was right; he’d seen it, but never realized it until she brought it to his attention. A ten year old?

"Which dogs do you think I should take for the seven-dog race?" Josh asked.

"The five fast ones, like I just said. I know you’ve got to take two more, and Shadow and Paul would do the least damage," she smiled.

"That’s what I figured," Josh said. "But I’m just going to run the ones you didn’t. That should be enough to win it without blowing everybody away too badly."

Tiffany’s 5:34 in the final was over a minute faster than the next team. It wasn’t the fastest trip around the course that afternoon; though; Josh managed to crank out a 5:32, about thirty seconds faster than Woody’s team, which had the help of an extra couple of dogs from another team.

After the seven-dog was over with, Greg called the mushers together. "All right," he said. "I brought four trophies with me, and we’ve got one last chance to keep them all from going to Spearfish Lake. Let’s do a wives’ race. One lap, three dogs, winner take all." He looked at Tiffany and smiled. "You don’t qualify, kid. You’re not a wife."

It was a challenge that couldn’t be bypassed. Jackie had been on the back of a sled perhaps half a dozen times, and they harnessed up Cumulus and Red and Midnight, which, while not Mark’s fastest dogs, were the best trained to command control.

"You want to run, Kirsten?" Mike asked as Jackie made her start.

Kirsten looked doubtful. "I’ve never even driven the damn dogsled," she said.

"You’ve ridden a couple of times," Mike said. "And you know how it’s done."

"Oh, all right," she said. "Somebody’s got to look like an idiot."

Quickly Mike and Tiffany hooked up Ringo, John, and Paul to the sled, and got it to the starting line before she could change her mind. Before the start, Tiffany had a serious discussion with the dogs, telling them not to do anything too crazy with her mother.

Jackie managed to uphold the honor of the Spearfish Lake mushers, although in no great time. Kirsten, running very carefully, still managed third, just a couple of seconds behind Vickie.

While the women’s race was being run, Josh and Tiffany were having a discussion with Woody. It was apparent that it was hurting him to have to give up his dogs, Josh could see. He could also see that the dogs had been cared for, and were very good dogs. After the women’s race was done, several people took the opportunity to just go out and cruise around the course with their dogs. Woody let Josh, then Tiffany run his dogs; they took two or three laps around the course, at no great speed, but studying the dogs carefully, then a little sadly they took them back to Woody and helped him break the team down.

Mark signaled Jackie to follow him, and went over to talk to Josh. "You remember that time Jim Horton came over and pointed out Ringo’s potential?" he asked.

"Yeah," Josh said, looking a little down.

"None of us saw a thing in that dog, except maybe a trip back to the pound, and Jim takes a couple of laps around the field, and says, ‘Run that dog in swing for a while, then put him in the lead.’ I never saw it. Mike never saw it."

"I saw something there," Josh said. "At the time, I didn’t know enough to know what it was."

"All day long, people have been pointing out obvious things to me that I haven’t seen. It makes me wonder how much I really know. But I can see that it’s pretty obvious you’d like that team."

"After last weekend, I talked to Dad again about maybe getting a team," he said. "You know him; it’s fine with him. But we didn’t mention it to Mom. You know why, too. Tiffany and I think Woody has a pretty good team, and it would be special if someone could take the time to train it right."

"I figured something like that," Mark said. "I’ve dealt with her longer than you have. Look, these things aren’t cheap. They’re not real expensive; I know people who piss away more money in beer in a month than I’ve spent on dogs in almost a year. But dog food, vet bills, gear, it adds up after a while."

"I’m working, at least some of the time," Josh said. "I saved most of my money from last summer, and Mr. Ellsberg says he wants me back next year."

"The thing is, you’d just get a year to run it, and then you’re off to college," Jackie said.

"Maybe not," Josh said. "In fact, probably not. I haven’t told anyone this yet, but Mr. Ellsberg has offered to send me to diesel maintainer school if I come back and work for him instead of going to college. If I do go to college, well, Tiffany has been bugging me all afternoon about wanting her own team,"

"Don’t let this be part of your decision about whether to go to college or not," Mark said sagely, but with a smile on his face: Tiffany was definitely working all the angles, he could see. "If you’ll agree to that and agree to pay the expenses, we can put the team out at our place and let your mom think it’s actually mine. But it’ll really be your team, and you’ll have to do the work. If you do wind up going to college, we’ll find a place for it."

"I wanted to ask you about something like that, but I couldn’t figure out how."

"I could see that," Mark said. "Look, we can’t pick the team up today, since we don’t have enough space in the truck, but let’s go talk to Woody. Maybe we can come down some evening this week."

It was getting along late in the afternoon before everyone was done. Greg called everyone together one last time, and handed out trophies and ribbons. "Even though you guys are taking home all the metal, we’re glad you came," Greg said, and there was some handshaking and back patting going on. "We’ll see you guys next month."

"Well," Mike said, "I think I can say for the rest of us that we’re a little embarrassed to come down here out of nowhere and clean house on you guys."

"Nothing to be embarrassed about," Greg said. "Look, I’m not telling you anything that none of us here haven’t talked about ourselves. I don’t expect you to say it, but this whole thing, while it’s been fun, has been pretty half-assed. We know it, and we’re a little ashamed about it, and that may be why we haven’t taken off like we should. The only way we can get past that stage is to raise the level of competition, so we can look like we’re serious. If we can do that, we can make it grow to be something. You people have taken us a big step in that direction today, so really, thanks for coming. Don’t expect to get away so easy next year."

"We’ll be here," Mike promised. "Unless, of course, you’d like to have the state championships as part of the Spearfish Lake Winter Festival, where maybe we can draw a little more attention."

"Is that an invitation?" Mears asked.

"Well sort of," Mike said. "We’ll have to talk to a couple of people to make it official, but I think they’ll jump at the chance. Hell, we might even be able to come up with some prize money."

"That would be a first for us, and it’s exactly what I’m talking about. Look, when we come up to your place next month, let’s make time to make some plans, let everyone there be involved."

"This is what I’ve been hoping to see for a long time," Woody said. "I’m just sorry I’m not going to be here to participate or even watch. But at least the team will be."

Chapter 45: Epilogue

March 1995

In the seven years since the first Pound Puppies race in Spearfish Lake, Mike and Kirsten and Mark and Jackie had stood by a good many finish lines for dogsled races, and each of them had crossed a few, too.

But this one was special. Beyond them, beyond the line of snow fencing that marked the finish chute, there was a wooden arch cut lengthwise out of a burled pine log, marking the finish line. The snow covered expanse of ice beyond the main street of the town wasn’t Spearfish Lake, and the town, though newer and no larger, was a little run down and tattered. But, its name had a magical ring, for the ice-covered expanse was the Bering Sea, and on the wooden arch, someone had lettered on the wood with a chain saw long before, END OF IDITAROD DOG RACE – 1049 MILES, ANCHORAGE-NOME.

Mike found himself worrying a little about George. He was the only one of the original Pound Puppies in the race, and he’d thought that maybe he was getting a little old for the grueling two-week race. However, he was a very reliable leader, and he’d still been going well back at Unalakleet, the last time the four of them had been in contact with the race, which they’d followed in a rented, ski-equipped Cessna 185, with Mark and Jackie piloting. A ground blizzard had held them at Unalakleet for more than a day, but they’d managed to make it to Nome on time.

Twenty-two miles up the coastline, Josh Archer roared into the Port Safety roadhouse, the last checkpoint of the race, and he wasn’t about to slow down, now. It wasn’t as if he was winning, it being his first entry for the Iditarod. The inexperience with the trail, and his dogs, which weren’t quite used to the Alaskan conditions had held him in the middle of the field, a good day and a half behind the leader. Still, a quick check of the sign-in showed that he was only five minutes behind the next team, and if he hurried, he could pick up a spot, even though it would still be out of the money.

Quickly, he threw all the excess gear out of the sled, except for the required minimum; he could pick it up later. Eager hands helped him pull on the identification vest he hadn’t worn since Anchorage, and after only a five minute stop, he was out on the trail again.

The dogs were working fine. He was proud of them, proud indeed. He’d started with sixteen dogs, but four had to be dropped along the way, and would be flown back to Anchorage, where inmates of the state penitentiary for many years had cared for Iditarod dogs until the owners could pick them up. Eight of the twelve remaining were his own dogs; one was Mark’s, one was Mike’s, and the other two had been the pick of the dog teams that had grown up around Spearfish Lake in the last few years.

It had been a long, tough battle to even get into the race, and now he had a good chance of finishing respectably. The local mushers around Spearfish Lake had helped a lot, every way they could, and his job with the railroad still left him time to train the dogs while he was off in the winter, but by the time he made it back to Spearfish Lake, rock trains would be running again, and he’d be on them.

He’d blown his savings to make this race, and people around Spearfish Lake had chipped in to pay the awesome expense, it had been a touch and go thing, right down to the last minute. He’d then gotten a call from Jennifer Evachevski and Blake Walworth, who’d offered him a bigger check than he’d needed. "You’ll go over budget," she’d said. "It always happens. You can use it. All I ask is that you have Jackie make a banner, oh, maybe twelve by eighteen inches, with ‘Jenny Easton Productions’ on it, and carry that on your basket. That way, I can write it off."

That banner was there now, flapping in the cold wind off of Norton Sound. It had been there since Anchorage, thirteen days before. It had been a long, long trail; Josh stifled a yawn. He’d gone without sleep since leaving Unalakleet, and the dogs hadn’t had much of a break, but they were holding up darn well.

It had been a long drive up the Alaska Highway too, and a month of training the dogs in Alaskan conditions at Talkeetna, north of Anchorage, but every minute had been worth it. As it turned out, Jenny’s extra money had been needed. He figured if he used the credit line on his credit card to the limit, he’d have just enough money to make it back to Spearfish Lake on a dry gas tank in his pickup.

An hour out on the trail, Josh came across another dog team, obviously the team that had been in front of him, and Josh knew from the sign-in sheet that this was the youngest girl musher to ever run the race, just barely eighteen. The team was stopped, and the girl was zipping a dog into a dog bag in the sled basket. "Trouble?" he shouted.

"He just pooped out and fell over," the girl called. "Not hurt, just fell asleep on his feet."

Josh had barely gotten past her, when she was back on her runners, hiking her team to one final effort. They ran nose to tail for the next hour and a half, until they finally came to the Fort Davis Roadhouse, the end of the Nome road system. They followed the shoreline for another couple of miles, until the trail markers led them up onto Nome’s fabled Front Street.

Ever since he’d caught up with the girl, the first Pound Puppies race back in Spearfish Lake had been going through Josh’s tired mind. This wasn’t going to be a case of pulling alongside, then counting down to a sprint finish; this was the Iditarod, not a race for a six-pack of pop.

It was clear that sooner or later, they were going to have to pick up from a trail pace to a sprint, to settle the matter, but just when that would be would depend a lot on how much each musher thought they could get out of their tired dogs. Start too soon, and they could poop out and fall back to a trail pace before the finish line. Start too late, and it would be too late.

It was the siren going off at the edge of town to announce their arrival that set them off. Josh could hear the girl yelling, "HIKE! HIKE! HIKE! HIKE!" to her team, and he responded with a "HIKE! HIKE! HIKE! HIKE!" of his own.

"TRAIL!" the girl yelled, announcing that she was trying to pass, but Josh’s dogs found a little extra effort as they raced down Front Street. The girl was gaining on him, little by little. First, he saw the leader running parallel with him, then the swing dogs. Still, the finish line wasn’t far away; perhaps his tired team could hold them off in the last two hundred yards.

Even though the race winner had been settled thirty-six hours before, there was a crowd lining the snow fence chute that ran down to the wooden arch of the finish line, drawn there by the roaring of the siren. It wasn’t often that there was a sprint finish to the end of the Iditarod, even for twenty-second place or whatever it was that they were racing for, and the sight set the crowd to cheering.

Maybe . . . Maybe . . . Josh thought, seeing the first of the girl’s team dogs running even with him now. Only a hundred yards to go, now, and he felt his team weakening a little, carried only by the cheers of the crowd.

Fifty yards . . . he glanced to his side, seeing the second set of team dogs coming up on him. His leader still had a dog length or more lead, as the chute squeezed tighter together, the two teams were running side by side, almost fouling each other. Almost there. "COME ON MUTTS! HIKE! HIKE!" he roared at the top of his lungs. "RUN EIGHT!!!"

This time, it didn’t take a video camera to settle the race; his leader had a good half-dog lead as they flashed under the wooden arch, almost side by side.

The chute widened a little, and both Josh and the girl yelled, "whoa!" and the teams came to a stop. Dog handlers rushed out to grab the teams, and Josh could see Mark and Jackie and Mike and Kirsten coming their way.

The girl threw back the hood of her parka, rushed over to him, threw her arms around him, and gave him a kiss like he hadn’t had since Amy, years ago. Finally, she came up for air. "There," Tiffany said with a smile, "Does that make us even?"

-- 30 --

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