"A Spearfish Lake Story"
It was close to midnight when they finally arrived in Spearfish Lake. It had been a long drive, since they hadn't been able to leave Decatur until John got off work. It had been later than he'd planned, since something had come up, as usual. The boys had fallen asleep in the back seat long ago, but Candice Archer resolved to help John stay awake while he drove the final miles through the empty, snowy woods toward home.
"I'm glad you're getting to come home for Christmas," she said, stifling a yawn. "I know it's been too long."
"Well, it couldn't be helped," he said. "But we should make up for it this year."
Ever since the boys had been old enough for it to matter to them, they'd held the traveling to family Christmases down to every other year, staying home to develop a Christmas tradition of their own on the off years, although the Christmases at home seemed a little quiet, compared to when all the relatives got together. At least, traveling for Christmas every other year had been the intent; they'd been to Candice's parents two years running, because they'd sold their farm down near Arvada Center, and it would be the last time for a family Christmas at her old home. There was a touch of sadness in her mind; she knew that she'd never be going home for Christmas again. Her family might get together for Christmas again sometime, but it wouldn't be at the old home she remembered and loved so well. But, she'd accepted it and put the thought from her.
It had been five years since they had been in Spearfish Lake for Christmas, and that one just didn't work out very well. John's brother Josh had been so busy getting ready to head for Alaska right after Christmas that he'd barely had time to have dinner with the family, and Mark's mother had died just before the holiday, so he and Jackie, John's older half sister, just hadn't been around much, either. But this had all the makings of their best Christmas in Spearfish Lake in almost a decade.
The last miles were familiar to John; he could just about have driven them in his sleep, but they were a little unfamiliar to Candice. There hadn't been many chances for John to come home at all in the last few years. What with one thing and another, those visits had mostly been rather hurried. John had a heavy work load, and it was difficult to get away for more than a few days at a time, so mostly they stayed around home. But this time, they were going to be almost a full week. It was going to be a real break for John, and she was happy for him. And, it would be nice for her to be away for a few days, too.
The light was blazing on the porch of John's old boyhood two-story home on a back street, away from the lake. They had barely gotten the car shut off when the front door opened and John's dad came outside, with no coat despite the chill December air and the snow-covered streets. His mother, Sarah, was a little behind her husband, having stopped to pull on a jacket.
"There you are," Walt said. "We wondered what was keeping you."
While John explained about having to work late, Candice turned around to wake up the boys. They didn't wake up easily, but they were getting too big to be carried in. Yawning and grumpy, they began to stir, and got out of the car. "I suppose you want to go right back to sleep," Sarah said to them. "You're going to be in Josh's old room. I'll take you up there."
"There's pajamas in here," Candice said, handing her mother-in-law a small travel bag. "I thought they might not want to wake up too much."
There was a bustle for a few minutes as Sarah took the boys up to bed, while John and Candice and Walt made a couple of trips up to John's old room with the bulk of the luggage. Once things were about as sorted out as they were going to get this evening, Sarah asked, "Would you like some coffee? I've got some decaf on."
"The smell of coffee might wake me up too much," John smiled. "Even decaf. But, I'd have some pop, or juice, or something. I wouldn't mind just sitting for a few minutes and unwinding, but I think I want to get to bed pretty soon."
"Well, how about a beer?" his father asked.
"A beer sounds good," John smiled. "How about you, Candice?"
"I could do a beer," she said. "Or, even better, some sort of wine cooler, if you've got one." She wasn't much of a drinker and knew John wasn't either, but a little alcohol would help her unwind.
"Do you care what kind?" Sarah asked.
"Whatever you've got will be fine," Candice replied, sort of collapsing into a chair at the kitchen table. She was desperately tired but knew that for a few minutes it would be pointless to try to sleep. Sarah handed her a wild berry wine cooler. Candice wondered a little what that meant, but it tasted good, anyway.
"See any deer on the way up?" Walt asked.
"Nothing," John said. "The traffic wasn't even bad."
"Well, it's a little late in the year for the deer to be moving much," his father commented. "You got any plans for while you're up here?"
"Whatever you want," John said. "I want to spend some time with you, and maybe see if any of my old friends are still around. But mostly, whatever you want to do."
"We don't have a lot of plans," Sarah said. "Christmas day will be full, of course. We're going to have everybody here to open presents. Mark and Jackie plan on being here all day, but Josh and Tiffany will have to go over to her folks place for a while after we get presents opened here. Her folks figured that since your boys were younger, they'd be more eager for presents. They're going to have dinner early, and we're going to have it late."
"There are some boxes with presents in the car," Candice said. "But I figured that tomorrow is time enough to put them under the tree."
"Gotta get the tree up first," Walt smiled. "Josh and Tiffany offered to take the boys out in the woods tomorrow so they could pick one out and cut it themselves, and they can bring it over so we could decorate it tomorrow evening. That'll make something different for the boys. They want them out there along midmorning, say nine or so."
"That'll be nice," John said, almost certain that there was a special thrill awaiting the boys, too. "You know, we've never had a real tree at home."
"It always seemed like just too much trouble in the city," Candice said with a smile; she had exactly the same suspicion that John did. "We always had a real tree when I was a kid. The folks used to have a bobsleigh, and we'd hitch up a couple of the draft horses and go out in the woods and get it, at least when I was little. Maybe it was because I was little, but it was always one of the real special things about Christmas for me."
It didn't take long before everyone was fading fast; this was a lot later than any of them normally stayed up. Soon, John and Candice were climbing the stairs to John's old room. The bed was a double, when they were used to a queen-size, and the mattress was old and lumpy, but neither of them expected to have any trouble falling asleep.
* * *
The next morning was clear, but not particularly cold; it had been overcast the night before, but just as the Archers were sitting down to breakfast at the kitchen table, the clouds moved out, leaving a bright, blue sky.
It was going to be a great day for making Christmas memories.
While they had been getting around, and before they woke the boys, John and Candice figured that it was just as well to keep the plans for the morning something of a secret, so the boys would have the thrill of being surprised. They just told them that they were going to get a Christmas tree, and to plan on dressing warmly.
John's dad had a run to make, and Sarah wanted to work on some things for Christmas dinner, so they stayed behind while John and Candice took the boys out to his brother's. There was a pretty good amount of snow on the ground out in the country a few miles out of town, where Josh and Tiffany lived, The road to their place was gravel, and usually pretty rough, but now it was covered with packed snow, and it was smooth and easy driving back to where they turned at a sign that said, "Run-8 Kennels".
Josh and Tiffany lived back over a hill from the road, at the end of a long driveway. Once they were over the hill, John and Candice could see that Josh and Tiffany still lived in the same old mobile home -- but the boys didn't notice, for once they realized where they were they were excited to see the dogs.
Literally everywhere they turned there were sled dogs, some barking and jumping, some standing on the top of their doghouses watching, others just sleeping. The noise was incredible. There'd been a lot of dogs the last time Candice had been there, but that had been years before, and there were a lot more, now. The boys knew about the dogs, of course, but it had been a while since they'd seen them and had been very small since they’d seen them in the winter. All of a sudden, they realized that they were going to get rides behind one of Uncle Josh's and Aunt Tiffany's dog teams. In fact, Tiffany was hooking up a team as they drove up and got out of the car.
Tiffany was a little taller than Candice, but not much, perhaps an inch or so, and a little more stocky, although again, not much. But, Candice knew that while she was simply a little heavy, Tiffany's chunkiness was solid muscle, gained the hard way. Tiffany's face showed the effects of wind and weather, and Candice suspected that her skin had never known a drop of makeup or lotion, and doubted that her close-cropped light brown hair had any idea of what conditioner was. Candice was proud of her own glossy, straight, below-the-shoulders black hair. From having been there Candice knew that Tiffany hadn’t worn a dress at her wedding, and strongly doubted that that her sister-in-law hadn't worn one since then, either. Tiffany may have been a little rough-cut compared to the women Candice knew in Decatur, but there was a reality and earthiness in her that Candice remembered from the farm women of her youth. She had respect, if not awe, of Tiffany's intelligence and drive, and the things she'd accomplished with them. Tiffany was comfortable in and even enjoyed places where Candice would never, could never, dream of going. From the first time they'd met, Tiffany had always seemed older and wiser than she was, rather than more than ten years younger.
"John, Candice, good to see you again," Tiffany called, waving with one hand while she held a rather excited husky by the harness in the other. The dog was trying to do four-off-the-floors, but Tiffany's strong arm held it in check. "Shay, Cody, you're really getting big! Did your grandpa and grandma explain what we're going to do?"
"They said we were going to get a Christmas tree," Shay replied. He was the older of the two, almost eleven now, and was the more likely to take charge of the two. "Are we going to take the dogs?"
"We're going to, unless you want to walk. I know where there are some nice Christmas trees, but they're a couple miles out there. Pepper, SETTLE DOWN!" she said to the excited dog, then added, "John, Candice, do you want to come, too?"
"Sure," John said. "Candice?"
"I wouldn't miss it, even if these aren't exactly draft horses." Tiffany furrowed her brow a little at the comment, and Candice explained about going out on the back of the farm with the sleigh when she was little.
"Well, OK then," Tiffany smiled. "Josh and Phil are out on a training run, but they should be back any time, now, and you can ride with them. Boys, would you like to help me get the rest of this team hooked up?"
"Sure," they both responded with big grins.
"Well, then, Cody, come here," she said. The boy raced over, and she pointed to a snap on the back of Pepper's harness. "Now, I'm going to hold Pepper still, here, and you snap that snap through the ring on the gangline."
"Does he bite?" Cody asked, a little shy, as he hooked up the harness.
He wasn't used to being around dogs, and Tiffany could tell. "He's a she, and no, she doesn't bite," she told him. "We don't keep biters or fighters. They get an attitude, and they're gone. We can't afford to have dogs that will hurt people or hurt each other." She knew she wasn't quite telling the truth, for any dog would bite if it got angry or scared enough, but touring dogs, like these were, usually had a better attitude than race dogs, or they wouldn't be taking out touring runs. "Here, I'll hold on to her, and you can pet her."
Cody reached out a little tentatively to pet the black and white husky. Pepper liked being petted; he got a big tail wag, and she tried to lick his face, but Tiffany's firm hand kept the dog from getting out of hand. "She likes me," he said.
"Looks like it," Tiffany said. "Come on, let's go get some more dogs." She led the boys out into the dog lot, and looked around to make a couple of selections. "OK, Casper, do you want to run today?" she asked a gray and brown dog that seemed no less eager than some other dogs she could have picked. "And, Dallas, you look like you're ready to rock and roll." She unsnapped the latter dog from his chain, and snapped a leash on it. Normally, she wouldn't have bothered with a leash and just held the dog by the collar, but when clients handled the dogs, it usually went better with leashes, and the boys were the same as clients for practical purposes. Shay got to hold Dallas's leash, while Cody drew Casper. Tiffany wasn't worried that the boys would have trouble with them; they were both older dogs, retired racers. Both of them had been to Nome, for that matter, but were far too old to race now. But, like any sled dogs, they liked to run, if not as fast nor as far as they once had, and it had been a couple days since these two had been out. She grabbed another dog by the collar and led the two boys back over to the awaiting team, and had them help with the hooking up.
They were just finishing up the last dogs when two more dogsleds pulled into the large yard between the trailer and the dog lot. "Ah, there's Josh and Phil now," Tiffany smiled. "How'd it go?" she called to the dog drivers.
"Pretty good," Josh called back, bringing his sled to a stop and stepping off, snow hook in hand. He wrapped the line from the snow hook around a handy fence post. "Turk's running a little off-speed, though. Again."
Tiffany frowned at the news, but said, "We're going to take John and Candice out with the boys. These guys up for another few miles?"
"I'd just as soon set out Turk," Josh replied, turning to the other musher, who had stopped his team behind Josh. "How about you, Phil?"
"We're all right back here," the other musher called.
"Well, give me a minute with Turk," Josh said as he walked down the team to the dog in question, stopping a couple times for a brief word or pet of some of the dogs along the way. "Candice, why don't you ride with Phil, and John, you can go with me. You about ready to go, Tiff?" He unsnapped an unhappy-looking dog from the gangline and started to walk it toward the dog lot.
The other musher was tall and had a short, full beard and wore sunglasses. He walked up to the cluster of people standing by Tiffany's sled. It was time for introductions. "Candice, this is . . ."
"Candy!" the other musher exclaimed. "I didn't realize you were Josh's sister-in-law! How have you been?"
Candice looked confused for an instant; there weren't many people who called her Candy anymore. The musher pulled off his sunglasses, and all of a sudden there was a shock of recognition. "Phil!" she cried, throwing her arms around him. "I haven't seen you since we graduated. What are you doing here?"
"You two know each other, I take it?" Tiffany said, a smile on her face.
"Good grief, yes," Phil replied, hugging Candice back. "We've known each other since kindergarten."
"But Phil," Candice said. "What are you doing here?"
"Just being a dog handler. You sure are looking good!"
"Phil is going to take the B-team this year," Tiffany explained. "He's worked with us off and on for years."
"I told Hadley-Monroe to jam it a while back," Phil said. "I asked Tiffany and Josh to help me put together a team for the Iditarod this year, and Josh said, 'Why don't you take mine?'"
"Isn't Josh going to run it this year?" Candice asked.
"We're going to put together a C-team, and Josh is going to do the Yukon Quest with it," Tiffany explained. "He probably won't win anything with it, but it'll be a good chance to evaluate the course, which is why he wants to do it in the first place."
"That's what, about a thousand miles?" John asked.
"A little more," Josh said, as he returned from the dog lot. "Conditions are quite a bit different, from what I've learned, and it's a lot more free-form than the Iditarod. It'll be good to do something that isn't quite as programmed, and it'll be fun to be a rookie again."
Candice had never ceased to be amazed that her in-laws raced dog teams across the interior of Alaska every winter -- and that it seemed about as common to them as going to the grocery store was to her. It was, well, unusual, to say the least. Josh had seemed just like a normal kid when she'd first met him years before, too. "But, Phil," she asked lightly, "How did a nice Arvada Center boy like you get hooked up with these crazy people?"
"It's a long, long story," Phil replied. "But the simple answer is that Brandy's mom introduced me to Tiffany's mom."
"Uh, let's get going," Tiffany interjected. "If he gets going on that story, the boys are going to be standing around here all day."
"Good idea," Phil said. "Come on, Candy. We can talk about old times on the sled." He escorted her back to the last sled in line, made a place for her to sit on an old blanket that lay there, and helped her climb into the basket.
"The last time I was home, Lori Watson said that you had a heck of a good job," Candice said.
"I did have a heck of a good job," Phil explained. "But, I got burned out."
"She said you traveled a lot."
"That's an understatement. I don't think I was home for ten days straight in ten years. Let me tell you, Candy, if there's a country in the world that's industrialized enough to have a Hadley-Monroe laser die cutter, I've been there. I can't tell you how many times I've been around the world. And, the sad part is how little I can tell you of the places I have been. I can tell you about the airports, the hotels, and the factories, and not much else." The teams ahead of them got moving, and Phil yelled some commands to follow them before he continued, "I finally decided I had to do things, not just be places. I've had the Iditarod dream as long as Josh and Tiffany, but this is my first chance to do much about it. But, what are you doing these days?"
"Nothing much," Candice said. "I'm third assistant comptroller at a regional office for First Decatur Savings and Loan, but that really means I'm just a glorified bookkeeper."
"Still have horses?" he asked. "I remember you just about lived on a horse."
"No," she replied sadly. "Not since high school. I thought about getting one, but it's just too expensive to have to stable one. It'd be a long drive, and it wouldn't be the same, so I figured there was no point in torturing myself. I know it's not quite the same thing, but when I was in school I dreamed about living around horses the way Josh and Tiffany live around dogs, so I guess I envy them, a little."
"I thought you wanted to be a veterinary technician," he said.
"It didn't work out." She shrugged, and changed the subject. The ride in the sled was easy, and quiet. By now they'd gotten away from the dog yard, heading out through an open field with training trails, and into the snow-filled forest. "So, what do you hear of the old gang? I haven't seen anyone for a couple years, anyway."
"Well, let's see. I don't get down around Arvada Center much anymore. It's been years, but I see Ken and Judy Sorensen fairly often. Her folks are separated, and her dad lives up here, so they come up now and then. They have three kids -- the youngest is in like second grade, and I think the oldest is a freshman."
"I saw her two, maybe three years ago," Candice commented. "She's not the same person we knew in high school."
"Yeah, that still amazes me," Phil agreed, leaning to one side a little to help steer the sled around a tight bend. The team was pretty much following the team ahead, so there really wasn't a lot of guiding involved. It was pretty countryside, even prettier with all the snow, and the dogs were trotting along at a good speed. He continued, "She does have a little trouble getting around, but it never seems to bother her." Both knew, of course, that their classmate had been grievously injured in a car wreck when she was little, and had been in a wheelchair or on crutches much of her way through school. She had been a shy, pathetic little creature most of the time. But, toward the end of high school, she'd started going with Ken Sorensen, and blossomed. "Now, she's pretty much just an ordinary farm wife," he continued, "But that's a bigger deal than anything any of the rest of us have managed."
"I know," Candice agreed. "It still amazes me. She and Ken still pal around with Bob and Lori, I guess."
"Yeah, Bob and Lori were up here last summer. What little I know about the rest of the crew, I know from her. Most everybody else is gone, and you don't hear much. At least, Judy and Lori don't, and what I know comes from them."
"How about Alison? You two were always close."
"Haven't seen her in years. Judy said she was at the ten-year reunion, but I was out of the country, so I missed her."
"It's not like it used to be," Candice replied, shaking her head.
"No, there's hardly anybody we know left down there, and there's plenty that's changed since we left. Like I said, I haven't been down there much in years. I guess we're all getting older."
"You don't realize how time passes," she agreed. "How far are we going, anyway?"
"I'm not sure," Phil replied. "I think Tiffany is going out to a reforestation area a couple miles up the trail. There was some nice spruce out there the last time I was out that way, and that'd be about the right distance to keep the trip exciting."
They rode along silently for a while, having just about exhausted what they could say about people they used to know. It was a wonderful ride, and Candice could easily understand how Josh and Tiffany could get addicted to it. It seemed like only moments when they heard Tiffany yelling a command to her leader, "Haw, George, Haw!" to turn the team off the broken trail and out into the clear, untracked expanse of snow to one side. The snow wasn't deep, and the dogs could plow through it easily, so the speed hardly slackened.
"Now, that's something," Phil commented. "I hadn't noticed that she had George on point. I don't think she's had George out in a while. He's getting to be an old dog, and she doesn't like to go very far with him, anymore. But, he was about the best leader they've ever had, went to Nome twice, and she almost took him a third time. He's mostly an inside dog, now."
Tiffany brought her team to a stop near a group of pines that stood about head high. There really wasn't enough snow to hold the team, so she tied the snow hook off to a nearby poplar. Josh and Phil found places to stop their teams and tie them off, and soon the seven of them were out looking for a Christmas tree.
Tiffany had stuffed a bucksaw in the back of her sled, and after much looking and debate, the boys settled on a nicely shaped spruce that everybody agreed would look good in Walt and Sarah's living room. Shay wound up getting the duty of crawling under the tree and cutting it down, and it took him a while since he wasn't used to handling a saw, but before long, they were loading it into Tiffany's sled. Cody joined his mother to ride back in the sled Phil was driving, while Shay and his father went with Josh.
The trip back seemed to go quickly; all too soon, they were back at the dog yard. "Now, we have to put the dogs away," Tiffany told the boys, and they turned to helping her. Josh and Phil had much larger teams to deal with, but they made quicker work than Tiffany and the boys, since she had the boys thank each dog for their help and play with it a bit. Josh offered to bring the tree into town in his pickup when he and Tiffany came in to help decorate it, then he and Phil turned to hooking up two more complete sets of dogs that needed their training run for the morning.
Before they left, Phil managed to catch up with Candice and John. "You went to school with Brandy Evachevski, didn't you?" he asked John.
"Yeah, I used to run around with her a little," John admitted. "Not dating, or anything, just a bunch of us getting together."
""That's what Josh said," Phil replied. "I don't know what you have planned, but Brandy is home for the holidays, and I'm sure she'd be glad to have you over to our place. I'll ask her and see if she or her mother knows if any of the kids from your class are home. Maybe we can have some of them over, too, have pizza and beer, or something."
"I'd like that," John said. "It'll be good to see Brandy again."
"Phil," Josh called, "You about ready to rock and roll?"
"Well, I'd like to hit the head, first," Phil replied. "Give me a minute."
While Phil took his team to the barn, Josh came over to where John, Candice and the boys stood. "Sorry to have to head out like this, but the training schedule is pretty tight, and we've got to get about thirty miles on these dogs today, then get some other stuff done, and Tiffany's got some orders to get out. But, maybe we can have a chance to talk tonight. We ought to be to Mom and Dad's about dark."