"A Spearfish Lake Story"
It seemed strange to Josh to be sitting quietly home alone in March, following the Iditarod on the Internet. When he’d first gotten interested in the race, there really wasn’t much current information around – there might be a paragraph in the Camden Press about it, giving the positions of the top couple mushers, and there might not be. In 1993 and 1994, he could check in on it online, following news service reports on CompuServe, and sometimes those went several paragraphs. In any case, he wouldn’t see anything real until sometime afterward, when there would be a TV report on Wide World of Sports. But, he’d run the race for five years now, and in that time the World Wide Web had changed things almost beyond recognition. Now, he could read all the coverage that was in the Anchorage Daily News almost easier than if it had been delivered to his doorstep. Within minutes after a musher hit a checkpoint the word would be sent by satellite to the race headquarters and the race standings would be updated on the Iditarod home page.
But it was hard for Josh to follow the race on the Internet from Spearfish Lake. It wasn’t the same as being there. He could read a name and see a face in his mind, hear the voice of the person if he knew them; the mere mention of place names brought back memories; he could almost close his mind and see the place as he’d seen it five times before. It was hard to not be there; he’d only been home a few hours and had checked the standings on the Web at least half a dozen times, each time in agony because he wasn’t in the race.
Josh and Tiffany were dead sure they would not be even moderately competitive in the race if it hadn’t been for Phil’s help with the breeding program. They owed Phil, not so much in money, although he’d helped out from time to time and paid a full lease payment on the team as well, but also in payment for all the work he had done for the last nearly ten years. Knowing that, the decision to let Phil run the B-team had been a snap. The only problem had been if Josh were to run the Iditarod, it would mean that they would have to give Phil third-rate dogs, and he deserved better than that from them. But, for Josh to run the Quest with the third-rate dogs as a sort of reconnaissance meant that they could give Phil the sort of dogs he deserved. Phil may have been running the B-team, but only Josh and Tiffany knew that it was much closer in strength to the A-team than the two teams had been in any other year since 1995.
Phil was getting a lot out of the team, too, for a rookie not knowing the course. They’d had him memorize Don Bower’s Iditarod Trail Notes, and had frequently drilled him on the contents. It would have been a lot easier for Josh and Tiffany to have run their rookie year if they’d had an as-yet unwritten copy of them. Don was a nice guy, rather a back-of-the-pack runner with pretty marginal dogs, but he’d become a friend. Their winter warm-up area was in a normally closed campground at Montana Creek, not far from Talkeetna, not far from where Don tried to train his dogs and teach school and do a hundred other things. He wasn’t running the race this year due to a number of problems, and Josh figured that Don must be about as frustrated as he was. But Tiffany and Phil were doing all right, and Phil at the moment was actually running ahead of Tiffany a couple of spots – but that still reflected the starting order, Josh knew, and would shake itself out in time.
Once again, he checked Phil and Tiffany’s time out of Finger Lake. It was still several hours before they could be expected into Rainy Pass Lodge. That was a tough and dangerous section of trail, so bad that the trail blazers had put out warning signs, saying "CAUTION" at tricky spots, "DANGER" at bad spots, and, at the descent onto the Happy River, "WATCH YOUR ASS!" Josh had always made it down the Happy River steps without major problems, but each time he’d stopped at the bottom of the descent to let his heart rate get back to something resembling normal.
There was no point in staring at the computer screen any longer; he got off line and shut the computer down. While the dog lot was a lot less full than normal, what with nearly half the dogs in Alaska, there were still sixty dogs out there that needed to be fed and get a little human interaction. He was glad Mark and Mike had been willing to come over and take care of them after Phil had left for Alaska. Josh had his boots on and was just reaching for his parka when the phone rang.
It was Brandy, a little to his surprise. She occasionally called from a site when she knew Phil would be out at the dog lot, but this was the first time in months. "How’d the Quest go?" she asked, speaking quickly, almost out of breath, it seemed.
"Pretty good," Josh said. "Didn’t get into the money, or anything, but it was interesting. The trail was easier than the Iditarod, but it was a lot colder. How are you doing?"
She evaded his question. "Look, I haven’t got a lot of time. Have you heard how Phil and Tiffany are doing?"
That was strange. Josh knew that Brandy had Internet access on the sites, so she should be able to follow the race the same way he was doing. Well, maybe the connection was down, or something. "Pretty good," he replied. "Phil’s in sixteenth, and Tiffany is in nineteenth, but it’s early, and the race is still shaking out. They’ve still got Buser and Swenson behind them, if that tells you anything. They’re heading up to Rainy Pass, and that’s a real tough section of trail, but I’m not going to worry unless they don’t check in before another couple hours. Not much I can do about it here, though."
"OK, thanks," she said. "Now, do you have Shelly Goodlock’s phone number?"
"Yeah, I got it here on the Rolodex." He turned to roll it around; as he was looking for the number he asked, "What do you need her number for?"
"I’ve got to have her do me a favor," she replied. In a moment he found the number and read it off to Brandy, who repeated it back. "OK, thanks, Josh," she added. "Gotta run. See ya." The phone went dead in his hand.
Josh looked at the phone for a moment, and shrugged, wondering a little what that was all about. With Brandy, it was sometimes a little hard to tell.
Fred Warwick was actually not as dumb as Brandy thought he was, but it had been clear she was so wound up that there wasn’t going to be any reasoning with her. Every now and then, a site went sour, people started rubbing on each other. This one had gone sour almost from the start. He knew most of the reasons and had done what he could to ease them, but still the job had to get done, and with Brandy gone it was going to be a lot longer to finish. But, really, he had no way to stop her; she was a partner, after all. She probably couldn’t have fired him on the spot, but it wouldn’t have taken her much time on the satellite phone to Denver to get him ousted. Not that it wouldn’t have been a blessing in disguise, as bad as this place was, but his retirement was almost vested, too. So, he figured that the best thing he could do was to grease the skids with her the best he could, then pass the buck, like any good organization man.
Once the Cessna with Brandy aboard was winging off into the distance, he’d taken a minute to mull things over. It was not long after dawn at the site, but it was still the wee small hours in Denver. Troy Moorehead, the director of field operations, was likely sound asleep, and wouldn’t be up for hours. Should he call him in the middle of the night, or put it off until he was in the office? Getting someone up in the middle of the night usually didn’t bring a good response, his aching head told him. Moorehead might not appreciate it any more than he had. On the other hand, this was important, a real glitch in the field operations, and the sooner something was done, the better.
He finally compromised a little. He got on the satellite phone and called the operations office in Denver. They ran 24/7, using a mainframe to reduce raw data that was shipped to them over the satellite. Mostly, this was noise removal; the somewhat-distilled data was shipped back to them over the satellite link for further refining. The output was used to guide further data searching, something like pulling itself up on its bootstraps. At least, the operations office was manned all the time, in case something went wrong with a system, somewhere, but it also served as a message center.
Moorehead wasn’t in, of course, the lucky bastard. At least he got to sleep nights like normal people. But, he would be in the office in the morning, at least, and not on the way to a site somewhere. Fred left a message for Moorehead to call the first thing, as soon as he got in, so at least he’d passed along word of the problem while letting the boss sleep. In fact, since it would be an hour or two, Fred figured he might as well get a couple hours sleep himself before the sun turned the container compartments into sweatboxes again.
The call came through a few hours later, while Warwick was sitting in the administrative trailer, which was a little cooler. "What’s up, Fred?" he wanted to know.
"Evachevski’s on her way home," he replied. "She was in here way early this morning, and she was way off her nut. She was all fuck this and goddamn that and piss on everything else, and I really couldn’t stop her."
"I haven’t the foggiest notion," Warwick replied honestly. "She really hasn’t been herself since we started on this site. Of course, between the heat and the other personnel problems we’ve been having, I can’t say as I blame her, either."
"I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do to replace her," Moorehead said. "There isn’t even anybody I can run down there on a temporary assignment, at least not right now. Make do the best you can, I guess."
"I sort of hoped that whatever’s bugging her, she’ll get over it in a few days and come back," Warwick said. "Her boyfriend is in that dog race up in Alaska, and that might have something to do with it."
"That’ll be over in a few days," Moorehead conceded. "Maybe I ought to try and catch up with her, talk some sense into her."
"It’d be good if you can," Warwick said. "She was waving her partnership around under my nose, and, well, I couldn’t reason with her. You’re a partner, you might be able to."
"Any idea how I can catch up with her?"
"Well, she’s on a flight out of La Paz to Panama City right now. She’s going on from there to Miami. I originally figured she wanted to go to Denver, since that’s where the office is, but she had me change the destination to Seattle, so I figure she’s planning on heading up to Alaska."
"That’s probably a good guess, under the circumstances," Moorehead conceded. "Well, there’s no catching her before Miami, if there. What flight is she on to Seattle?
"It’s the United redeye. I didn’t get the flight number, but it stops in Denver on the way to Seattle."
"All right, I’ll try and catch up with her and talk to her. You hang in there. I’ll try to get her back to you. If I don’t, we’re almost finished with the site in Rhodesia. Maybe I can get someone from that team to fill in for a while." If I pay them enough, he thought to himself.
"Thanks, Troy. I appreciate it."
Moorehead sat back and thought for a minute. That wasn’t like Brandy, but the job did get to people after a while, and she’d been on it much longer than most. There was always a turnover of people, even though they were paid well. He visited all the field sites frequently, but he knew that a few days on a site and months on end without a break were two different things entirely. Personnel burnout was his number one problem. Brandy was a sharp woman, and the magres system was totally her idea and basically her design, but he suspected she’d let herself get addicted to the intoxicating challenges of field work and let it burn her out. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen it happen. He’d gone through the phase himself, but he’d had the good sense to get transferred back to headquarters.
Which was where Brandy belonged, where she’d belonged for some time now. Moorehead was pretty sure there were some other ideas floating around in her head that could work as well as the magres concept, but she needed to spend some time on them, away from the pressures of the field work.
That was all well and good, to think about the long run, but the problem was that there weren’t a lot of people who could even fill in for Brandy – not in the company, not even in the world. She understood the magres system like few others, and was better than most at interpreting its sometimes ambiguous results. They were already well behind in Bolivia, and they had to get the work in Pakistan done so they could get onsite in Siberia and get things organized before hard winter set in. Moorehead had been to that site in the winter, and it made Alaska look like the banana belt. So, the whole thing depended on getting the Bolivian work done before they got too far behind schedule. If they slipped too much further, they were going to have to reschedule the Pakistani job, and they’d catch hell, not to mention the loss from nonperformance clauses. Maybe, just maybe, if they didn’t get too far behind on the Bolivian job . . . but with Brandy as wrought up as Warwick seemed to indicate, it could be tough to get her to turn around and come back. Probably, the best idea was to get the guy moving from Rhodesia as soon as possible. If he read the reports correctly, the real hard part of his work was done. And, that team was only going to move on to Rwanda, but was scheduled for some stateside time while the equipment was moved. It might work.
On the third hand, it was going to be a pain in the butt to reshuffle things. Maybe it was best to try and get a word with Brandy before he started the ball rolling. Fortunately, that ought to be easy. It was fairly easy to call United and find out which flight Brandy was on – there weren’t many that went direct, and then on to Seattle. He scheduled a flight to Seattle on the same plane that evening, and an almost immediate return. It would cost him at least part of a night’s sleep, but the cost was tiny compared to what they stood to lose otherwise.
It took a little more work to get a seat next to Brandy, and he had to grease the skids with the ticket agent at the airport to get it accomplished. Moorehead had long learned that hundred-dollar bills often made the best grease for such things. When he got on the plane a while later, the stewardess took one look at his boarding pass, and commented, "Look, we’re not going to be full. If it gets to be too much, I think I can move you."
"If what gets to be too much?" Moorehead asked.
The stewardess pointed down the aisle, and then he heard a strange sound. It sounded like it must have been some sort of interstellar monster that made a noise like pigs rooting in a trough, combined with a handsaw with a few bad teeth. A loud handsaw . . . it was Brandy, and she obviously wasn’t losing any sleep over leaving the team in the lurch in Bolivia. How could her boyfriend put up with her snoring like that? Most of the seats near her were empty, and those nearest that were occupied had faces with some irritated and pained expression.
The stewardess’s offer was tempting, but . . . well, duty called. On the other hand, maybe it would be best to let her sleep for as long as he could; she might be in a better mood than if he woke her now. He should be able to get a few minutes with Brandy before the plane landed, or maybe on the ground in Seattle. "Yeah, I’ll take something else," he told the stewardess.
Brandy slept all the way to Seattle, and everyone in first class was more than aware of it. The seat was upright, and she slept right through the landing. He stalled getting off of the plane until toward the end and let the stewardesses worry about waking Brandy up. Finally, as she was starting to stir, he made his way off the plane and waited for her at the gate.
Moorehead had seen Brandy in better shape than when she walked out of the accessway, but he was a little surprised to see that she’d pulled herself together somewhat, "Hi, Brandy," he said as she walked by.
"Troy!" she said with a start. "What are you doing here?"
"Oh, I heard you were going to be here," he replied dryly, then continued, "What happened? We need you in Bolivia."
"Troy," she said with a pained expression. "Screw Bolivia. I’ve had it. If I never see a mine again it’ll be too soon."
"Brandy, it’s not like you to walk out in the middle of a job. The team is depending on you. We’re depending on you."
"Look," she replied, visibly holding in a short temper. "I know it’s not fair to quit like that, but I can’t take it anymore."
This wasn’t going anywhere, and Moorehead could tell that he was handling it poorly. Maybe he’d better take a different tack. "I understand," he said. "Take some time to cool off, and then at least consider going back to Bolivia and wrapping up the site. Or, consider going to Rhodesia to wrap up the site there to fill in for the guy I send to Bolivia. That shouldn’t take long, maybe three or four weeks."
Brandy clearly wasn’t having any of it, but she tried to placate him a little. "OK, I promise I’ll think about it sometime. Not right now. Don’t get your hopes up. But even if I do wrap up one of those jobs, that’s it. I’m done. Find somebody else."
That was pretty obviously about the best concession he was going to get, and at least it was a little better than being told to go play on the freeway. "Well, at least unwind some," he said. "After that, maybe we can talk R and D in Denver."
"No promises," she replied. "The word that sucks there is ‘Denver.’ Look, I’ve got to catch a plane."
"Me too," Moorehead responded, putting his hand on her shoulder and speaking softly. "Brandy, whatever happens . . . "
"What?" she frowned.
"Take care of yourself, and the best of luck to you."
"Thanks, Troy," she said quietly, her visible anger receding. "You take care, too."
With Tiffany gone, the battered old trailer seemed very quiet and lonely to Josh, and especially so at night, and the bed seemed empty when he awoke before dawn. Even George, Tiffany’s faithful and now-retired leader wasn’t there, and that made the bed seem really empty. George wasn’t supposed to sleep on the bed, but he usually managed to. He was a big enough dog that he didn’t leave a lot of room for the two humans. He was going to be thirteen pretty soon now – just exactly when would be hard to say, since he was the last remaining of the original pound puppies that Mike and Mark had rescued from the Spearfish Lake Humane Society many years before. Tiffany had raised him from being a fuzzy little puppy; he’d been to Nome twice, and a lot of his descendants were out on the trail with Phil and her now. George was responsible for much of what they had become in the last few years, but he probably wasn’t going to be around much longer. It was going to be a sad day indeed, when he was gone. Now mostly a house dog, Tiffany’s mom and dad were keeping an eye on George while they’d all been gone, and Josh hadn’t had the time to go over and pick him up, yet. Just his temporary absence, along with Tiffany’s, made Josh seem even more lonely and the dawn seem even more bleak.
Still aching with loneliness, Josh got around and fed the dogs. Even with nearly half of them gone, it was a big job, taking over an hour, but the dogs on the dog lot were on a maintenance diet now, and training was over with for the year. There was still some snow left around Spearfish Lake, and would be for a month yet, but it was getting wet with the warm days. When it froze on a cold night, it made a hard crust, difficult and dangerous for either the dogs or the mushers to run on. The familiar training trails were mostly ice, and difficult for the dogs, as well; pretty soon, they’d turn to bottomless mud, impossible to use. At least there were no races left on the schedule, and the dogsled tours were pretty much over with for the season; people were looking toward spring.
With his chores over, Josh headed back to the trailer to change his clothes. He was actually making pretty good time. He let the computer boot while he was getting into store clothes, then checked the race progress. There wasn’t any word; both Tiffany and Phil were still at Rohn Roadhouse, apparently holed up for the night, and he wouldn’t expect them to get going until first light, still several hours away in Alaska. Once again, he could close his eyes and imagine them out in the wilderness on the far side of the Alaska Range, and once again, it felt strange to not be there with them. His mind still far away, he shut down the computer, grabbed his parka, and hopped into Tiffany’s battered old Jeep for the trip to the office.
On the way into Spearfish Lake, he realized that he didn’t have to be to the office for some time yet, and, other than a cold pop-tart before feeding the dogs, he hadn’t had breakfast. Besides, he knew he should really make an appearance at the breakfast table at the Spearfish Lake Café. A real breakfast and the conversation with friends that went along with it would be nice, and maybe would ease the strangeness and loneliness that he could feel shadowing him. He didn’t often make it to the café for breakfast in the winter, but in the summer a breakfast and cup of coffee or two was a regular occurrence on his way down to the C&SL yard, at least when he had a morning run to make.
A bunch of the regulars were there – Mark and Mike, and he’d seen them yesterday, for they’d picked him up at the airport in Camden. There were others; his boss at the railroad, Bud Ellsberg, Joe McGuiness, the bookkeeper who had his office next to the store, Gil Evachevski, Brandy’s dad, Steve Augsberg, production manager at the plywood plant, Ryan Clark, the plant manager. The last year, Phil had often been there in the mornings, but he was in Alaska, after all. Josh’s dad wasn’t there, so apparently he didn’t have a run today, but that was unlikely this time of the year. There were a few others around the big table; Josh knew them all, of course, some better than others. "So how’s Yukon Josh?" Augsberg asked.
"Sweating to death down here in the banana belt," Josh smiled. "But, it’s good to be back."
"You heard anything new about Tiffany and Phil?" Mike asked. Tiffany was his daughter, after all, and Josh knew he was on the net following the race, just like he and a lot of people were doing.
"They were still in Rohn fifteen minutes ago," Josh said. "They’ll probably be there for a while yet. It’s a quiet place to take a night stop. You don’t have all the hassles of spectators coming and going you get clear out to Rainy Pass Lodge. We’ve usually tried to stop past there when the timing works right."
"Does it feel strange to be following this one on the Internet?" Clark asked.
"I may quit following it," Josh said. "It’s just so different to not be doing it. I mean, even with doing the Quest this year, it’s not the same. Why torture myself?"
"So how was the Quest?" Augsberg asked.
"It was pretty good, if kind of small-bore and back in the pack for me, what with the dogs I had," Josh told him, and added a few brief stories about the thousand-mile dogsled race he’d finished a few days before. It was a little bush league to him, but in the last few years, the Iditarod had gotten a little preprogrammed and predictable; the Quest was something new. "It was fun to do once. I don’t know about doing it a second time, though," he concluded. "So what’s been happening in Spearfish Lake?"
"Not a heck of a lot," Mike replied. "The basketball team got clobbered in the first round of the playoffs, not that anyone expected different, and it’ll be a while before we get to talking baseball. You know, the late winter blahs. What snow is left is crap, and there’s mud everywhere."
"Coming back three weeks earlier than normal means I just get that much more of it," Josh said. "But, I’ve got enough to do, I suppose I won’t mind."
McGuinness smiled. "Speaking of something to do, the truck from Perception was in last week, and you have boats everywhere you turn waiting to be unwrapped. You can hardly walk through the store. Then, the day after, we had another truck drop off a half dozen new Nimbuses. I unwrapped the Kap Farvel, and boy, that’s a sweetie. Leave that near the top; I want to try it out when we get some open water." McGuinness had been a kayaker for many years; most of what Josh knew about kayaking he’d learned from him.
"It is a sweetie," Josh said, almost relieved that the talk had changed from dogsledding. "I tried one out last year. They make them right, not with all the extra weight of those British bomb casings. I’m half tempted to keep it for a personal boat, but if someone wants to buy it, well, I guess I’d sell it. You thinking of giving up the Caribou?"
"It’s tempting," McGuinness said. "Of course, every spring I get the hankering for a new boat, or at least, the hankering to try out new boats. It’d be hard to give up the ’bou, but I figure that there’s no such thing as too many kayaks if you’ve got space for them."
"That would make, what, nine?" Ellsberg asked.
"If you don’t count canoes, and recreational boats," McGuinness smiled. "I keep thinking that I ought to sell some off, but I can’t figure which ones. I mean, I use them all at one time or another."
"So, how are things at the store? Other than crowded with kayaks?"
"Pretty quiet, but it’s been perking up a little," the bookkeeper said. He’d been watching the store the last few weeks, since Phil had left. They’d run the store phone line into his office, and left a sign on the door telling people to come next door if they needed something. It’d been a stopgap, and Josh knew it. "You’ve got about two dozen phone calls to return, and there have been several trips booked. That one up to the island next fall is filled, already."
"It’d be fun to do that, some time," Josh said. "That’s Ken and Judy’s, though. They started it."
"It’s a neat place," McGuinness replied. "You ought to do it some time. I’ve sort of got a hankering to paddle around the whole thing. Maybe we could do it together sometime."
"It would be fun," Josh replied, shaking his head. "But that involves finding two weeks, and there’s no way I’m going to do it this year. We couldn’t go up there right now, anyway, but from now till the pits open is going to be my slow time. That means I’ll only be working as much as a normal person. Unless, maybe they’re going to open the pits late this year. Bud, heard anything about that?"
"No such luck," Bud replied. "They’re talking maybe a week early. I need you to drop by, oh, the next day or two, and talk about that."
"Suppose I’d better," Josh said. "I probably better do it this morning before I get my mind on the store. Joe, any reason you can’t keep an eye on the shop for an extra couple hours?"
"Might as well," McGuinness smiled. "You’re not even gonna want to think about the railroad for a week once you see the stack of mail piled on your desk."
Josh grimaced. "I was afraid you were going to say something like that."