Facing the Storm

"A Spearfish Lake Story"

a novel by
Wes Boyd
©2001, ©2009, ©2012

Part III: Winter into Spring

Chapter 11

John and Candice weren’t fanatic fans of dogsled racing, but they did follow the race every day or so through the internet just to keep up on their in-laws, and this year, Phil. But, they missed the update of when he finished, and didn’t get around to checking the standings until later. They had other things on their minds.

Candice didn’t get off work until four PM, and it was usually after 4:30 before she could get to Shay and Cody’s elementary school, which fortunately had an after-school program to assist working parents. It was a godsend, especially since John worked till five, anyway, and often later. Things would get more complicated in another year, she knew, when Shay went off to middle school, but they more or less leaned to letting him walk home to an empty house when those days came – Avery Middle School, where he’d be attending, was only a few blocks away.

It was usually about five when Candice got home with the boys. Since she never knew if John would be working late, she usually turned on the news, changed out of her office clothes, and glanced at the mail while the TV was going. When the sports came on at the end of the segment, she’d flip on the living room computer – the only one in the house with a modem, so they could keep an eye on the boys’ Internet use – and check e-mail, which included Iditarod standings the last few days. If she hadn’t heard from John by 5:30 or so, she’d go ahead and start dinner under the assumption that he’d be there.

The after-work routine the day that Phil finished the Iditarod started out like any other. They were running just a little early that day, and Candice managed to catch the lead story: there’d been a shooting outside Hopkins Middle School. Apparently, it was drug related but had occurred while students had been on their way to school. Fortunately, no children had been injured, but school had been closed, and there were clips of frantic parents picking up their kids. Counselors were to be called in for the reopening of school tomorrow, since many of the children had witnessed the shooting.

She watched the story, shaking her head in relief that Shay wouldn’t be going there. The place had a tough reputation; Avery was a lot better, although admittedly it still had its problems.

The second story was even more disquieting: "Banking customers in Decatur will be seeing some changes in the coming months. Windemere Savings Bank will announce tomorrow that they are purchasing First Decatur Savings and Loan. The combination of the two banks will make Windemere the largest savings and loan in the state. Officials had no comment on how this will affect First Decatur operations."

That one set Candice back. There hadn’t been any sort of an official announcement to the employees – not even a rumor of the deal. First Decatur was a solid bank, with branches all over town, but Windemere was a multi-state conglomerate.

The announcer had no more than started on the next story when the phone went off. She picked it up, and recognized Debbie Mansfield’s voice. Debbie was probably her best friend in the office, and she sounded upset. "Did you hear about Windemere?" she asked.

"Just now on the TV," Candice told her.

"What I want to know is how did it get out to the TV stations without the employees being told first? That really stinks!"

"Not really surprising," Candice agreed. "The people affected are always the last to know."

"Mushroom management," Debbie snorted. "Keep them in the dark and feed them shit. What I want to know is what happens to our jobs. "

"What do you mean?"

"They’re probably going to want to consolidate operations. If we were in a branch somewhere, we’d probably be all right, but in a regional office? That’s got to be a main target to get consolidated."

"I see what you mean," Candice agreed. "Well, maybe we’ll know more tomorrow."

"I doubt it," Debbie said. "But, I’ll bet we’re out on the street inside of six months."

Candice had always tried to stay out of the office rumor and politics game, although, really, there was no avoiding it. After Debbie hung up, Candice thought about it for a bit. A consolidation wasn’t out of the question, and she’d heard before of how such consolidations worked. Debbie might be right at that, but there was no way to tell. Having only gone back to work when Cody was in school full time, Candice didn’t have much seniority, and she might well be out of a job when the shaking out had taken place. It wasn’t as if she had a career invested in First Decatur; there were other jobs, and possibly better ones. She’d been thinking about getting a resumé out, but inertia had sort of gotten in the way. That had now just gotten moved up on the priority list.

Absentmindedly, Candice began to open the mail. Most of it was junk, but the third one down was from the Decatur Area Regional School Authority. It was a single sheet, and Candice could hardly believe what it read:

"Shane W. Archer will be assigned to the sixth grade class at Hopkins Middle School next Fall. An orientation session for parents of incoming Hopkins students is scheduled for April 19 at 6:00 PM at the school. Parents of incoming students are urged to attend."

Perhaps a little numbed by the First Decatur news, Candice was a little surprised at herself that she wasn’t terribly upset. She had no idea why Shay would be assigned to a school seven miles away rather than one a half mile away, and she’d heard that getting transfers between schools in the system was difficult. But, they’d been talking about sending the boys to Valley Christian for months, and, as far as she was concerned, this letter settled the issue. There would be some other problems, but there was no way that Shay was going to Hopkins.

She thought that it probably would be a good idea to discuss this with John before they told the boys. The subject of Valley had come up before with the kids, and they were predictably less than enthusiastic, but the prospect of having to go to Hopkins as an alternative might make that go a little easier.

Fortunately the boys were upstairs playing games on the computer Mark and Jackie had given them, so she didn’t have to bring the subject up just then. By the time she’d gotten everything sorted out in her mind, at least a little, it was 5:30, so time to get supper started, and the thought of getting on the computer never crossed her mind. Mostly, she was thinking about how much easier things had been back in Arvada Center. But, they were city people now, and there was no going back.

*   *   *

The trip home seemed quick as a dream.

It was five days after Tiffany finished the Iditarod before she, Phil and Brandy were able to get on one of the special flights Alaska Airlines had to return the mushers to Anchorage with their dogs and gear. It was not a luxury flight; just a cargo plane, not well heated, with the cabin stacked high with gear and filled with dogs, and a few jump seats for the passengers. Shelly met them at the airport with the dog truck and trailer, which she and Josh had driven back to her home from the restart over two weeks before. Then, there had been two busy days at Talkeetna, closing out the winter camp, digging out doghouses from under the burden of ice and snow they’d accumulated, stacking them under a tarp behind the old travel trailer to wait for another year, and generally getting things cleaned up and packed for the trip home.

Finally, they loaded all the dogs and gear in the truck and headed south, stopping at the Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla, where things were getting back to the normal they’d maintain for the next ten months, then drove on back to Shelly’s, where they spent the night. The next morning, they made the now-traditional stop at the Eagle River elementary school, and late that afternoon, Phil and Brandy had seen her off at the airport at Anchorage. She’d flown through a brief night on a direct flight to Minneapolis-St. Paul, then waited around there in the wee small hours of the morning for the hop to Camden.

As the plane began its descent, Tiffany found herself a little amazed to think that Brandy and Phil still had to be somewhere on the Glenn, probably making a night stop somewhere – they’d be a long time on the road. It didn’t seem quite real to her that she was almost home, already. In a way, it didn’t seem quite right. Until this year, she’d always made the trip home down the Alaska Highway in the truck with Josh and the dogs. Although it was a long and tiring trip, it had become something to look forward to – a relaxed road trip, filled with the satisfaction and glow of a month or more of adventure of a type that was hard to find anymore. They’d always taken their time, usually ten days or more, not pushing hard, stopping frequently to drop the dogs out of the dog truck for some exercise. In a way, it was a rewarding time that had really been her only vacations since she’d made that first Iditarod.

It had proposed to be a little different, coming home with Phil, instead of Josh, but they would probably have had as good a time as always, recounting their adventures and summarizing their lessons learned. Tiffany had actually looked forward to coming home with Phil, if for no more reason than she knew that he’d have a different perspective on the adventure than Josh would have had. But then, Brandy had appeared out of nowhere at Nome, and now she was almost home, while her mind was still in Alaska.

The airliner swept low over the outskirts of Camden, and soon she heard the "scrooch" of the tires hitting the runway. A few minutes later, she grabbed her carry-on, and walked off of the plane into Josh’s arms. It had been nearly three weeks since she’d kissed him good-bye at Willow, the longest they’d been apart since they’d been married, the longest, in fact, since she had been a little girl. "God, Tiff, I missed you," he said.

"I missed you, too," she said, a little surprised to feel hot tears in her eyes. They’d talked on the phone several times after she’d gotten to Nome, most recently to let him know when she’d get into the airport at Camden, but it wasn’t the same as having her arms around him, the taste of his mouth on hers. They were back together, and she had to thank Brandy for keeping the separation from being ten days longer.

Only slowly did she realize that Josh wasn’t alone; her parents also stood waiting to greet her. Hating to let him go, she turned to hug them, as well. "It’s good to have you home, kid," her father smiled.

She turned to hug her mother as well. "You’re looking good," she said.

"It’s wonderful to be home," she told them. "So much has happened."

"You can tell us all about it in the car," Mike smiled. "Let’s go get your bags and get on the road."

"No need," she said, holding up her carry-on. "This is all I brought. The rest of it’s on the truck with Brandy and Phil. There’s nothing there I’ll need till they get back."

"Then, let’s be about it, people," Mike smiled.

A few minutes later, they were in Mike and Kirsten’s Chrysler, headed toward Spearfish Lake. "So how are things at home?" Tiffany asked.

"Actually, pretty good shape," Josh replied. "There’s still snow back in the woods, but it’s that late-spring stuff we wouldn’t want to run on if we could. Everything else is mud season. There’s still ice on the lake, but it’s pretty black and we should be having breakup soon."

"How about the store?"

"Good shape," he replied. "It’s starting to perk up a little. We’re still waiting on the Old Town shipment, but the rest of the new boats are in, unpacked and on the racks or in storage. Joe has an empty storefront – it’s where Millie had her craft store – and he’s letting us store the extra boats in there, so you can actually walk through the barn. I actually sold a couple boats last weekend, a Carolina and a Gannet, and I sold a Nimbus the week before last. The shelves are pretty well stocked, but we’re back ordered on part of the MSR shipment."

"Sounds like you’ve got everything pretty well under control."

"Pretty well," Josh admitted. "I wanted to get everything caught up while I still could."

Tiffany furrowed her brow. "Still could?"

"That’s the bad news," Josh said. "We start the summer schedule Monday."

"Monday? I thought you were going to have another week or two."

"Yeah, they think the ice is going to be out of the docks by then, and they cut off so quick last fall that they didn’t have a big reserve down at the loader, so we have to get that built back up before the shipping season gets under way. It looks like it’s going to be the old April agony again." He explained about having to fiddle with the schedule to clear away time for the track crew to work on the bad track near Blair. "That won’t be for a while yet, but we decided we might as well run the new schedule from the beginning so we’d be used to it."

"That makes sense," she said.

"It’s not that simple," he explained. "Anson isn’t back from Florida yet, so Dad and Bud are going to run the daytime rock train between them. I’ll be running nights, at least till Anson gets back, since I really don’t want Dad or Bud out all night. After that, we’ll go on rotation. Worse, we’re short on braking people again, too. One of the track gang guys is going to fill in with me, but Roger wants him back as soon as things dry out, and before then, if possible. So, whenever you’re up for it, I’ll want you braking as much as you can."

That was a downer. She’d hoped to be able to spend most of her time in the store or with the dogs. A few ten-hour shifts each week would put a crimp into that. "What about the store?" she asked.

"It’ll be nights, for a while," he explained. "I figured we could split the days in the store. It’s only going to be for a while. The summer kids will be in about the first of May, and we sort of hope to find another full-timer for the fall."

Tiffany thought she might as well be philosophical about it. After all, the time she spent braking paid more per hour than the time in the store, at least this time of year; in time, she hoped to reverse that. A buck was a buck, after all. "Well, I suppose I could start Monday, if you need me," she replied, "The one thing I missed about flying back was that we didn’t get the chance to sit in the cab and talk about dogs all the way home. At least this way, we can still do it."

"That’s true," Josh replied. "I missed it, too. And, there are things we need to talk about, like plans for next year, what we’re going to do, and how. We can’t answer everything yet, at least not until Phil is back, and maybe not then. Did he say anything to you about next year?"

"Only that he didn’t know. That’s one of the things he and Brandy are going to talk about on the way back."

"That is the damnedest thing," Josh smiled. "I didn’t know anything about it until you called. Well, I shouldn’t say that. She called me and asked for Shelly’s phone number, but didn’t say anything about going to Nome."

"Well, I didn’t know anything about it, either," Tiffany laughed. "I mean, I was as tired as usual when I finished, and here’s this strange woman hugging me and pounding me on the back, and all I could think was, ‘Who the hell is this woman who acts like she knows me?’ Brandy was just about the last person who would have crossed my mind."

"I couldn’t believe it when you called and told me she was there," Josh smiled. "I figured she was still in Bolivia, too."

"You think you were surprised, you should have seen Phil," Tiffany replied. "I wanted to get up and see him come in, just to see it, but I must have slept through the alarm. He was happy to have finished, but stunned that Brandy had come to watch."

"We ought to go up there again, sometime," Kirsten said. "Not like we did the other time, maybe, flying into some of the checkpoints, but at least the start, and then maybe flying into Nome."

"It’d be fun," Mike agreed. "That last time was just so expensive, though. But, we wouldn’t have to do the bush-plane thing. I still think it’d be fun to do the race, you know, just to be there, not try to win or anything. But then I think about how expensive it is, and how hard it is, and what you go through, and I think better of it."

"When things go right, it’s a lot of fun," Tiffany agreed. "But when they get hard, they get so hard that I can’t believe I actually did it."

"What happened between White Mountain and Safety?" Josh asked. "I’ve been meaning to ask. You were a hell of a long time getting into Safety."

"That was tough," she replied. "Topkok was roaring like mad. You’ve never heard anything like it. It was at night, and I’d been running more or less with Rick; we kept passing each other at breaks. I got to Topkok Summit, and I stood there in the dark, looking down into that white hell and just then, he came up. He stopped, took a look, and said, ‘You up for it?’ And, I said, ‘I am if you are.’"

Josh shook his head. "If I had to go through that place while it’s blowing, and at night, I couldn’t think of anyone better for a partner than Rick Swenson." She and Josh both knew that the last time Swenson had won the race, it had been won right there at Topkok. The race leader, no less than Susan Butcher herself, had shied away at just such a decision, but he’d pushed on ahead to take the lead, and with it, the victory.

"My thoughts exactly," Tiffany agreed. "I wouldn’t have thought of it if it had been anyone else. Even you. Anyway, he waited for a minute while I moved Hobo up into lead, and we took off."

"Hobo?" Tiffany knew that Josh didn’t think a lot of the scruffy-looking dog, and had argued against her taking him at all.

"I figured he was stubborn enough to not turn downwind, and too dumb to do anything but follow the scent from Rick," Tiffany smiled. "It was hard, and I don’t know how Rick found the trail, or how Hobo followed him. I had no idea of where we were; I couldn’t see anything and you can’t believe how cold it was." There was no way to tell him just how scared she’d been, or what had ever made her follow Swenson down there in the first place. And it had been incredibly hard, harder than she could have imagined, harder than she could have told, at least to her parents, although in time she might tell Josh just how scared she had been. And, she might not, either.

"It just kept blowing all the way down to Bonanza Ferry," she continued, brushing over that couple of horrible hours, "And I finally figured out where we were when we passed the old railroad engines." She sighed. "After what Rick had done for me, I wasn’t going to race him on the last leg, so I let him pull out a little lead once we were out of the blowholes, and just loafed on in from Safety."

"Can’t blame you a bit," Josh replied.

"I wasn’t worried about anyone catching me," Tiffany continued, glad to have the winds of that blowhole behind her, even in the telling of the story. "I had a pretty good start, and they were going to have to go through there solo. The place was its usual screwy self, though. When Phil came through a few hours later, it was almost calm, except for a little bit near the end, he told me."

"You never can tell about that place," Josh agreed.

"So, what else is new?" she asked, anxious to change the subject.

"Oh, not a lot," Josh replied. "Joe and I went down to Canoecopia the weekend before last. Fun show, and I think I learned a lot. We’re starting to get some trip bookings, and Ken and Judy’s trip to the island is already booked. Oh, and the Aho kid dropped by looking for a summer job, and I’ve got him helping with the dog feeding. I think he can handle it by himself for at least one feeding a day if he has to, at least till Phil and Brandy get back with the rest of the dogs; then, we’ll have to see. Did you get any nibbles about a dog handler?"

"Afraid not," she reported. "I let some people know we were looking, but nothing turned up. I thought there might be some discussion of it in Nome, like at the banquet someone might know someone, but nothing. Did you have any luck?"

Josh shook his head. "About the same," he replied. "Of course, you were barely out of the gate before Shelly and I were heading back to Anchorage, so I didn’t have much chance to talk with anyone after that."

"I stopped off at Wasilla after we closed up the camp," Tiffany said. "I let Lois know we were looking, too. She’s clued in pretty well on who’s doing what, so she might find someone."

"It’s a hope," Josh shrugged. "If we can find someone, fine. If we can’t, well, we can’t, and we’ll have to make do. We’ve got a few months before we really have to confront that issue, anyway."

It was a tough one, Tiffany knew. Training three teams in the fall had been very tough, even with Phil’s help, and even though one of the teams didn’t have to get the level of training of the other two. As busy as they were getting to be, even training two teams to a competitive level without a dog handler was going to be even harder. "I suppose you’re right," she said. "So, back to the real world. What do we have to do when we get back?"

"We’re figuring on having you over for dinner, tonight," Kirsten offered. "It’ll be just us. When Phil gets back, we’re going to have the get-together at the Vietnam Veterans hall, to welcome the both of you back." It was an annual affair; although, in recent years they were toned down a bit from their first Iditarod. Back then they’d driven back into Spearfish Lake to be met by most of the town’s fire engines, the school band, and a parade down Main Street in their muddy, battered old pickup with the overfull camper on the back and dog heads hanging out every door of the trailer. It would have been nice if they’d been given some warning; she’d been wearing some old jeans too long unwashed and smelling of dog shit, and a jacket with a rip in it that needed mending, and had to talk at a huge welcome-home party in the school gym. Even so, it had been nice to know they had been appreciated.

"Beyond that, we’ve got the day off, except that I probably ought to help Eric with the evening feeding," Josh offered. "It’s getting too close to April 15th for Joe to keep an eye on the store, and things are perking up a little, but Jackie offered to babysit the place today."

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