"A Spearfish Lake Story"
Shay and Cody were in hog heaven on Christmas morning. They were the only grandkids that Walt and Sarah had to spoil, since Mark and Jackie had never had any kids and Josh and Tiffany didnít plan to have children any time soon. Of course, that meant that their aunts and uncles got to do some spoiling, too.
The boys were a little disappointed, for each of them had sort of hoped that Aunt Tiffany and Uncle Josh would come up with a puppy or two. Their disappointment was only slight, since Aunt Jackie and Uncle Mark gave them a computer with a hard drive full of games. They didnít do badly by Aunt Tiffany and Uncle Josh, either, since each of the boys got a new mountain bike. Among other things, they got a train set from Grandma and Grandpa Ė and there was an extra little surprise there, since Walt had taken the engines from the train set and had Jackie repaint and re-letter them with the colors and logo of the Camden and Spearfish Lake. And, of course, they loaded up on a lot of other stuff, too. It was quite a haul, and John wasnít real sure he was going to be able to find space for everything in the car on the way home.
Of course, there were a lot of presents among the adults, too. John had once grumped about always getting ties for Christmas, and ever since, everybody had felt honor bound to get him a tie, so his collection increased by several. But, ties werenít all he got; a little prior coordination had resulted in his getting a new laser printer from his in-laws, Markís computer business having something to do with that. Candice wasnít left out Ė she got a down parka with a fur-lined hood, with Josh and Tiffanyís outfitting store having something to do with that, as well. She doubted that sheíd wear it much, but there would be some really cold days, even down in Decatur, when it would be welcome.
By the time everything was done, it all added up to quite a mess of boxes and piles of wadded up paper in Walt and Sarahís living room. After theyíd gotten done with the gift giving, Josh and Tiffany had to leave for a while to do the gift giving at her parentsí house. Getting an early start wasnít quite as important there, since the youngest at her house was her sister, Susan, who was a little older than Shay and Cody, and was a late sleeper, like her brother Henry, who was home from his freshman year at college.
After they left, Mark showed John how to set up the computer and then showed the boys how to play some of the games. They were soon busy with Quake and Tomb Raider, while Sarah and Jackie and Candice put together a light breakfast that would have to serve as a lunch, as well. They all knew there was no point in stuffing themselves, since the real meal would be in the evening, after Josh and Tiffany returned. The boys had to be nearly dragged from the computer, and were back on it only minutes after eating, but the adults sat around the kitchen table for a couple hours, drinking coffee and talking about one thing and another. It didnít amount to anything in particular, just good conversation and reminiscing and renewal of ties that were sometimes a little tattered by distance.
After a while, the talk among the men turned to hunting and football and railroading and dogs, and they gravitated to the living room, while the women set to work on the feast. While Sarah had borne the brunt of the cooking, with some help from Candice in the last day or two, both Tiffany and Jackie had made some contributions. Among other things, Tiffany had made up a moose and wild rice casserole, which sheíd left with Sarah to bake. Jackie came up with a couple of southern dishes sheíd learned how to make when she and Mark had been installing a phone system in rural Florida many years before. The smell and the bustle and the sharing in the kitchen, the discussion of recipes and little cooking hints and tricks were something that Candice had enjoyed, even as a little girl. Christmas at home, with just the three of them, just wasnít the same, and the afternoon flew by quickly, and soon, Josh and Tiffany returned for what would be their second round of Christmas dinner.
If anyone went hungry in the Archer dining room that Christmas evening, it was their own fault. It was the biggest meal that had been set around the table in many years, an event to remember. Candice found herself almost wishing that John had given her a gym membership, since it was going to take some doing to work off the results of this incredible feast of food and love, that once again reminded her of the home of her youth, now gone forever.
There were three cakes, five kinds of pie, and several other desserts, some from Jackie and Tiffany, but most made by Sarah, and everyone was so full from the main course that no one wanted to eat them. By unspoken mutual consent, it was agreed to put off dessert for a while, to let the main course settle. Josh and Mark surprised the women by offering to do the dishes, or at least get started at them, and John joined in with the project, and Walt stood around the kitchen trying to help. Of course, it took the guys twice the work and twice the mess, but none of the women minded being sent to the living room where the boys were once again at the computer. The dishes did get pretty well done, and then the men served the desserts, and even though no one claimed to have any free space for it, there was a pretty good dent made in the selection.
They sat around talking long afterward. Walt fell asleep in his chair, and the kids soon faded, too. It was late when Mark and Jackie and Josh and Tiffany said their good-byes and headed out into the darkness, and John and Candice were soon headed upstairs to Johnís lumpy old bed. All in all, she thought it was about as good a Christmas as she could remember in years, and easily the best theyíd had with her in-laws, ever. Not that it was anything spectacular, just that it was about what she thought Christmas should be.
John and Candice had never been to Phil and Brandyís house before, but it wasnít any trouble to find; it was, as Josh had explained, "Barney Reynoldsí old place," and John knew where that was. It was just a small house, nothing particularly special, located a block or so back from Point Drive, over near the elementary school.
John only had a nodding acquaintance with Phil from the dogsled trip to get the Christmas tree, and Candice had never met Brandy, who had a solid build and a rugged if nondescript appearance, and short-cropped, mousy brown hair. "Glad you could come over," Brandy said once introductions were made. "Weíre not much on entertaining, but itís nice to have visitors once in a while. John, Iím afraid itís going to just be us, though. I had Mom ask around. Anissa Petersen is doing the Disney World for Christmas thing, and wonít be back till next week. Terry Curtis still lives up here, but heís at his wifeís folks, down in Camden. Thereís a couple other people from our class who still live around town, but nobody we ran around with."
"Thatís not surprising," John said. "After all, most of the old gang were kids who were going to go to college, and I guess most of us moved away. At least, youíre still around."
Brandy smiled. She had always been a rather intense person in school, but a good-natured one most of the time. "I think itís neat that Phil and Candy are old school classmates. I mean, itís not like itís just you and me getting together."
"Yeah, thatís kind of weird," Candice agreed, ignoring the use of the nickname that Brandy had to have gotten from Phil. Sheíd tried to get away from it in college, but sheíd been friends with Phil long before the change. "Phil is about the last person I expected to run into up here. I guess our class was even smaller than yours was."
"Well, come on in, have a seat," Brandy said. "It isnít much, but itís home."
Candice looked around. It was nice enough in the living room, which had a lived-in appearance. The furniture showed signs of use, but was comfortable. Through an open door, she could see an office that was cluttered with computers, technical books, notebooks and rolls of blueprints or plans or something Ė an obvious work space. Phil had admitted making good money on his job, and John had told her that Brandy made a lot too, but nothing in the house was evidence of it. The small house was clearly a place to live in and work out of, not to show off.
"I suppose Walt and Sarah have been feeding you pretty good?" Phil asked with a smile.
"Iíve eaten at least a monthís worth in the past four days," John admitted. "Everythingís great, but I know Iím going to have to pay for it."
"Weíll go easy on you," Phil replied. "Neither Brandy or I are much good as cooks. Well, since I quit Hadley-Monroe, I have managed to learn how to use a can opener and a microwave."
"I did cook for myself a little toward the end in college," Brandy added, "But I havenít figured out the new can opener yet, so we decided weíd just order a pizza. Is that all right with you?"
"After the last few days, a little junk food would be something of a relief," Candice smiled. "A pizza is fine with me."
"Iíll get it ordered," Phil offered. "Anything you particularly like or dislike?"
"Put a hold on the anchovies," John replied. "Other than that, whatever."
"You might tell them to go easy on the peppers," Candice added. "Usually, I donít mind, but as much as Iíve been eating, well . . . Iím still getting over Tiffanyís venison chili from when we were out there last night."
"Thatís pretty good," Phil said. "It can be a little, well, intense."
"Of course, itís intense," Brandy snorted. "She got the recipe from Hjalmer Lindahlsen. You remember that, John?"
"Of course, I remember that," he laughed. "How could I forget farting like that? I mean, I could have filled the Goodyear blimp."
"Me, too," Brandy laughed, and started the story for Phil and Candiceís benefit. "We were back in, it must have been eighth grade or so, and they had this chili cookoff contest. Jennifer was going to sing in a contest there, so a bunch of us were there, you and me and Anissa and Terry and Shelly and I donít know who all. Most of the chili was so hot it could burn holes in cast aluminum, but Hjalmer had this pot of stuff that was pretty mild, so we ate quite a bit. Then, about six hours later, it was just gas city."
"I have no idea what he had in that chili," John laughed. "It sure wasnít what the chili recipe in the paper said it was. The only consolation was that you knew you werenít alone. I mean, all over town, you could tell who had eaten it."
"Tiffany didnít get that part of the recipe from Hjalmer," Phil protested. "Her chili is actually pretty good, if a little on the hot side, but thatís fine for out in the woods. You know, when I first met Tiffany, she even made me look good as a cook. I mean, literally, she could screw up packaged ramen noodles, and that takes talent. But, when they decided to get the tripping business going, she realized she was going to have to feed the customers and feed them pretty good, so now they have people coming back because they like the food. Of course, Tiffany does do better if sheís using an open fire, rather than a stove. Iím going to order the pizza. Anybody want a beer? You get a choice of Miller and Miller Lite."
"I could do a Lite," Candice replied.
"Canít think of anything better than a beer with pizza," John agreed. "Iíll take a regular."
"Lite for me, Phil," Brandy said.
"Two real and two no-lead," Phil laughed. "Iíll go order the pizza." He headed for the kitchen.
"He hasnít changed much," Candice commented. "Heís still pretty lighthearted."
"That sort of irritated me when I first met him," Brandy admitted. "In time, I realized that was what I liked best about him. I can get pretty intense about my work, maybe even obsessive, and that can wear you down after a while. Heís good at helping me get things back in perspective."
"What is it you do?" John asked. "Mom said she thought you were some kind of a mining engineer, and that you traveled a lot, but she wasnít real clear on it."
"Thatís fair, for a simple answer," Brandy said. "I donít think Phil fully understands what I do, and sometimes I wonder if I even do. But, Iím a partner in a company thatís based in Denver, and what we do is use several technically sophisticated systems to search for mineral deposits. I invented the core of one of the systems when I was working on my doctorate. Phil wrote some of the software for it and built some of the hardware for the prototype. Typically, what weíre hired to do is to take a team to a mine thatís getting close to worked out, but has an intact infrastructure, and search for significant ore pockets that may have been missed in earlier operations. The systems arenít simple, we have to build them ourselves, theyíre very slow to do a detailed search, and they generate a relatively small amount of data that has to be separated from a lot of noise, so weíre typically at a single site for anywhere from two to six months. But, weíre successful enough at it that we can charge a lot and still have a waiting list thatís years long. As often as not, we have to tell a customer, ĎSorry, youíre screwed,í but at least they know not to waste any more money on the site. On the other hand, a few years ago our system picked up a billion-dollar vein less than thirty yards from an abandoned drift."
"It must be interesting, what with all the travel," Candice observed.
"The work is technically interesting and challenging, which is why I stay with it. Oh, the money helps, too," she smiled. "Most of the equipment can work 24/7, so usually when weíre on a site we work twelve-hour shifts, and sometimes more than that, just to get it over with. But, I donít think Iíve ever been in a mining town where I wanted to spend a minute more than I had to. The mine sites themselves are usually ugly and dirty as hell, and you wouldnít want to write home about most of the people you meet since you wouldnít want to scare the folks at home that badly. Itís always good to get back home for a while and unwind before heading out again."
John shook his head. "How did a Spearfish Lake girl get involved in something like that?"
Brandy shrugged. "Itís a long story," she said. "I had the idea as an undergrad that I wanted to get involved in petroleum geology, but the classes at Michigan Tech are more oriented toward hard rock, so I actually got pretty good at that. Then, when I was at Colorado, I got this wild hair that I wanted to figure out a way to image the plumbing system of the geysers at Yellowstone. That proved to be a blind alley for a number of reasons, but a couple of the ideas that I had proved to be adaptable toward the system I dreamed up. The people Iím working with now heard about it, thought it had some potential, and came up with the money to develop it, and one thing led to another. I never did get around to finishing my doctorate, but maybe someday."
"It must have made it hard for you and Phil," Candice observed. "I mean, for the both of you to be traveling so much."
"It worked out," Phil said, returning from the kitchen and putting beers around before he took a seat. "There wasnít anything much for me to do at the mine sites after we got the system working pretty good," Phil said. "And, she isnít much fun to be around when sheís integrating data. So, I got this idea that Iíd find something else to do, and weíd get together when Brandy was on hiatus. With the software and applications hardware background Iíd picked up developing Brandyís magres system, Hadley-Monroe snapped me up as soon as they got my resumé. The problem was that I wound up traveling more than Iíd planned, to the point where I was several yearsí worth of jet-lagged."
"We got this place, oh, ten years ago," Brandy continued the story. "We decided we needed a place we could call home, some place where we could leave our off-season clothes. Some place around Denver would have made a lot more sense, but we figured that if we were here, Dad could keep an eye on the place, keep the grass cut and like that, and Mom could deal with the routine bills. And, at least when I came home thereíd be family and friends here, even if Phil was gone somewhere."
"It actually worked out pretty good," Phil added. "Outside of the fact that the place was never occupied more than about three months a year, until about a year ago, when Iíd had enough of laser die cutters."
"It sounds like it must have been pretty wearing for you," Candice commented.
"I was really getting burned out at Hadley-Monroe toward the end." Phil nodded. "What took the fur-lined pee pot for me was when they sent me to Japan with this senior engineer to help define the specs for a custom system. The guy knew his stuff, but he was a cranky old fart at the best of times and hated to travel, so I had to listen to him bitch all the way to Japan. We hadnít been there a day when he gets an e-mail from his wife that she was leaving him. I guess sheíd waited for years for the chance to get him out of the house long enough to get her stuff out."
"Iíll bet that went over big with him," John smiled.
"It was really kind of interesting," Phil shook his head. "This guy was all business when dealing with the clients, but the minute we got out of the plant, every night, boy he was ready to kill, and I was the nearest available person. It was all I could do to keep from saying the hell with it myself. By the time we got back to Glen Ellyn, I could see why his wife wanted to leave him. I donít blame her a bit. But along in there, I realized that Hadley-Monroe didnít have enough money to pay me to keep putting up with that kind of shit, so I walked in the door and told them to bag it."
"Yeah," John smiled. "Sometimes you get to the point where enough is enough. So, what are you doing these days?" John asked.
"Just being a dog handler," Phil said. "Josh and Tiffany got me interested in dogsledding years ago, and for years I dreamed of doing the Iditarod. It was just something totally different, something to look forward to. By the time I got back here, it was too late to ask Josh and Tiffany to help me put together a team for a rookie run, but Iíd offered to help them out. They had some gal who was going to manage the store for them when they were away, but she bombed out on them at the last minute, and Josh was just about ready to not run last year when I volunteered to help out. So, I ran the store through the race, and then pretty much did it through the summer rush too. Finally, I asked them about getting some dogs for this year, and Josh said, ĎWe can if you want, but our B-team ought to be good enough for you to do a rookie run.í So, Iím off to Alaska in about a month."
"How are they going to handle the store during the race?" Candice wondered.
"Weíre going to double dip it," Phil replied. "The store is actually pretty slow by that time of year. The winter tours are pretty well done because people are sick of winter, the dogsledders have all the gear they need till fall, so the mail order is flat, and itís too early for the summer stuff. Josh and Tiffany are going to leave for Alaska with all the dogs in about three weeks, so theyíll have some time to condition the Quest dogs. Iím going to fly up to Anchorage in time to help with the start of the Quest, and then work with the rest of the dogs while Tiffany goes to Dawson for the finish. Mark and Mike will take care of the dogs here while weíre gone, and Josh will fly home after the Iditarod starts to watch things here. Anyway, Josh and Tiffany are going to board the Quest dogs and the spares with some musher Josh knows up there until Tiffany and I bring them home after the race. This gal Josh knows is going to take care of what has to be done at the Anchorage end during the race."
"Thatís Shelly Goodlock," Brandy said. "Remember her, John?"
"Shellyís in this, too? I havenít seen her in years. Whatís she doing?"
" Teaches school outside of Anchorage," Brandy said. "She gets the Record-Herald, and heard about Josh and Tiffany the first year they ran the race, and offered to help out. She does it every year, now. Sheís thrilled to do it. The Iditarod is a big deal up there."
"But what about the store?" Candice asked.
"Like I said, itís a slow period," Phil replied. "There probably wonít be much that canít keep for two or three weeks. Jackie is going to come over every day or two and deal with mail orders, and Joe McGuinness, the guy who runs the accounting business next to the store is going to answer the phone and deal with any customers."
"Itís nice of you to help them out," John said.
"Well, Iíve got a piece of the business, and helped them get financing," Phil shrugged. "I have to keep an eye on my investment. We can get away with it this year, but might not another year."
Candice shook her head. She knew that Josh and Tiffany had a lot of different things going, but they seemed to be spread pretty thin. "They seem to be pretty busy," she commented.
"Theyíre busier than I am when Iím on a site," Brandy admitted. "And, they donít get to take off for two weeks or a month two or three times a year, like I do. It changes, but just never ends."
"Yeah," Phil agreed. "After Tiffany and I get back, most of the training will be over with, but dogs will still have to be fed and watered and petted over the summer. Josh will be out railroading, and thatís sometimes sixty hours a week. But sheíll be running the store, at least part of the time, dealing with the dogs, and theyíll both be doing kayak tours, too. Theyíve got about forty different things going on, and they donít know whether to shit or go blind."
"They need to figure out a way to take a breather." Brandy shook her head. "Theyíre going to burn themselves out in no time at the pace they keep. And, if the store and the touring business continue to grow, itís just going to get worse."
Candice nodded. "You have to wonder why Josh doesnít at least give up the railroading. That would help a lot."
"He doesnít want to, for one thing," Phil shrugged. "The biggest thing is that all the other stuff theyíre doing could go sour, and the railroading at least provides a steady income to fall back on. Their racing is dependent on their sponsorship, although less than it used to be. Thatís pretty solid, and theyíre not locked into just one sponsor, but you donít know whatís going to happen down the road. The kennel business sort of depends on their reputation as racers. The touring, well, that involves a lot of personal contact, and to a degree itís dependent on their racing. A lot of their customers are the sort of people who like to brag around the water cooler at work that they did a dogsled trip with this gal who runs the Iditarod. The store is doing all right, but itís going to be a while before itís a big enough profit center to live on. And, to top it off, Bud over at the railroad isnít getting any younger. Josh has had to take over some of the operations management since Budís wife died, and he could be running the whole works in a few years. That is, if he doesnít go nuts, first."
"That is an awful heavy load," John said. "I mean, I knew they were busy, and theyíve been busy since weíve been up here, but I just figured that was run-up to the race."
"Theyíre going to have to get some help," Phil said. "I mean, Iíve helped carry them through this year, but Iím not doing it for the money. If I needed money, I could call up Hadley-Monroe and tell them Iím willing to work as a consultant for a couple months at only twice what they used to pay me. Iím doing it for therapy, I guess, and friendship, too. But, there are other things I want to do, too. They know that. Josh is going to nose around and see if he can find a dog handler. Just getting someone to feed the dogs is one thing, but the training is more important, and youíve pretty well got to have someone who is really committed to dogsledding for that. They have to be a little crazy, but there are people who will do it, and some of them will be hanging around the Iditarod, maybe even running it. Thatís why Josh is going to hang around for a while after the Quest Ė he could come home a week or two sooner, otherwise."
"They do stay busy," Brandy nodded. "Donít get me wrong Ė I think Josh and Tiffany are some of the best people I know, but they canít do everything themselves, and itís going to bite them sooner or later."
"They do get some help," Phil said. "Like the trips. They do have people they can call on to help out. Candy, do you remember Norm Niven?"
"Judithís dad? Worked at the farm center? Sure, I knew him. Not real well, but I knew who he was."
"Youíre not going to believe this, but they have him leading some of the dogsledding tours."
"It was a surprise to me, too. He and his wife broke up a few years after Ken and Judy got married, and he moved up here. Not to town, to a little cabin way the hell and gone out in the woods, and Josh and Tiffany got him started in dogsledding. He was a real hermit there for a while. One thing led to another, and he got to leading winter trips for them. Heís got a great big beard, comes across like a real grizzled old sourdough, and it goes over real good with the customers. Thatís why I see Ken and Judy once in a while, when they come up to visit him."
"Iíll be darned," Candice replied, a little amazed. She didnít remember Norm Niven very well, but Philís description didnít match her memory of him, not by a long shot. "I havenít seen him since we were in school."
"Heís changed a lot, but in a lot of ways he hasnít really changed that much," Phil explained. "I worked for him one summer at the farm center, so I knew him pretty well."
"Iíve really lost track," Candice said. "You move away, and you miss a lot. Now that my folks have moved away from Arvada Center, there just isnít much reason to go down there anymore."
"Yeah, me too," Phil agreed. "Iíll bet itís been ten years since Iíve been there. Not much reason to go. Our twentieth will be coming up in a few years. I want to try to make that, just to catch up. Iíd lost all track of you, for example. What have you been doing with yourself?"
"Oh, not a lot," Candice said. "Nothing as interesting as youíve done. I wanted to be a vet tech, but there are a lot of people studying that in college and I got the impression that the field was a little tight. After I got to going with John, I decided to change my major to business administration. I figured that would be a good general degree that I could take anywhere and do a lot of things with. We got married right after we graduated, and I got pregnant with Shay not long after that, then Cody a couple years later, so I really didnít get to working much till about five years ago, when they were both in school. Weíd moved down to Decatur by then, and I wound up working for First of Decatur. Itís a good job, nothing special, but it pretty much keeps me a suburban mom with a job, like most of the people I know."