Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

Pulling Even
Book Seven of the Dawnwalker Cycle
Wes Boyd
2004, 2009, 2011

Chapter 16

Tuesday, December 4, 2001

It wasn't that cold a day for the first part of December – just in the twenties – but it was overcast and windy. The air seemed damp and heavy. Based at least partly on spending four winters in this general neck of the woods, Duane could feel the oncoming snow in his bones as he and the team he was training followed Candice Archer and her team down the trail toward the dog barn.

Duane was still pretty much a rookie at training dogs for dogsled racing, so he was glad that he had Candice and the others to work with him and show him the ropes. Even though it involved long, cold, and sometimes grungy days, it wasn't quite as much drudgery as he had been led to believe, and it beat the living hell out of the winter before last.

It had been the winter after he'd hiked the Appalachian Trail, the winter that had started so promisingly with Chica and ended so surprisingly. It wasn't strange that he would be thinking of Chica; though physically Candice resembled her very little and was almost twice her age, from the backside that long, untethered black hair could have been on the either person.

As he watched his leader follow Candice and her team down the easy trail, his mind couldn't help but wander. Just two years ago he'd been expecting to marry Chica, possibly the following spring, if the job he'd been hoping for came through. Over the winter things went much differently than he'd expected – nothing he'd done since then had been anything he could have expected when the two of them moved into the scrubby little studio apartment in Waynesville, and that included what happened with Chica. Absently, he wondered again where she was, what she was doing; it had been over a year since he'd heard from her. He knew how to track her down and find out if he wanted to, but he was sure that he didn't want to; she was part of the past now. If the two of them hadn't been able to fit together then, there was ten times less chance that they could do so now.

Since he'd gotten into his Jeep Wrangler and driven away from Waynesville and Chica twenty months before, he'd often missed her – or, at least missed having a girlfriend. Not that there hadn't been opportunities since, for there had, but none had held the potential of being something more permanent without taking him away from a life that was becoming ever more satisfying.

Not that the unexpected still can't happen, he thought. He knew full well that he wasn't the only one out here on this trail behind a dog team this afternoon who would have been utterly shocked two years ago to have seen this future. He knew the story well: two years ago Candice had been a bookkeeper in a bank branch in a very large city, and her husband John had been doing internal accounting for a big online sales outfit. Now, she was training a dog team; in three months, unless something very unexpected happened, she'd be in Anchorage, heading out on the thousand-mile dogsled race to Nome.

Without ever having been told, Duane knew there had been some stress between John and Candice over the way her life had unexpectedly turned, but they'd overcome it; now he was proud of his wife and had become her most active supporter. Perhaps it was the bonds of a long time relationship, their two boys, and just the maturity that comes with growing together, but they'd been able to manage something that he and Chica hadn't, with their considerably weaker relationship.

Chica, wherever you are, hope it works out for you, he thought to the wind.

Still, it got lonely at times. Though he thought of himself as a people person and got along well with most everyone, he didn't mind being alone when he had no other choice – well, at least most of the time. Though he'd known a few people in Spearfish Lake when he came here last fall and had met more since, and often got invited out for dinner, it still got to be a little lonely when Candice would hop in her van and head home for dinner with John and the boys, when Phil would head home to Brandy, when Josh and Tiffany would head home for dinner with each other – while he had to contemplate throwing the leftovers of last night's goulash into the microwave and hope there was something only moderately disgusting to be found on the limited number of fuzzy channels on the TV.

Maybe that wasn't so bad, he thought. In the summer he about had his fill of being sociable, never got much time to rest, and never watched TV at all. If TV seemed mundane and disgusting now, it would have been so out of place as to be pure blasphemy where he'd spent his summers the last two years. It had already been pretty clear to him that the thing with Chica wasn't going to work out when three women walked into the Waynesville McDonald's twenty months before and in a few words changed his life forever.

Duane wasn't worrying much about navigation; this was a trail they'd followed several times before, and even the third time today. Besides, he was mostly following Candice, who had run this many times before. There was no traffic when they crossed a woods road, little better than a two-rut, and bent up a fairly steep hill. In addition to training the racing dogs that would be going to Alaska – about forty would go, though not all would be in the race in Candice's or Phil's team – there were other dogs in training, mostly younger ones. The best of those would be earmarked for future Iditarod teams; the others would eventually be sold to local racers who didn't need quite the level of capability needed for the trek across Alaska. The nearby races were mostly short sprints, and required dogs with different characteristics than long-haul dogs suitable for the Iditarod. He was glad he didn't have to be the one to make those decisions – all he had to do was to help get miles on them. There were about a hundred dogs in various levels of training; getting miles on them in groups of ten or so meant a lot of time on the runners, not just for the two of them, but also for Phil, Josh, and even Tiffany a little on occasion, considering her new baby. Several other people would also come out and lend a hand. Duane had wanted to learn how to run a dogsled out of this deal; he was getting that in spades.

Candice stopped her team at the top of the hill, and Duane stopped right behind her. Again, this was standard practice, to give the dogs a little breather, and to take one themselves. It was usually just for a couple minutes, so other than dropping the snow hook over a handy log there was no effort to tie the team down – the dogs could take it in their heads to run at any time. She glanced back and said loud enough to hear, "Everything going all right?"

"No problems," Duane replied, looking back at his trail partner. She was good looking, tall for a woman if shorter than he was, had a pretty face and a nice smile. She had a placid personality, and was pleasant to be around. Though in some respects she was hardly less of a rookie than he was, she'd done this for a year and seemed to have a natural talent at it. She'd been a lot of help in learning what went on, especially the first few days when everything had been strange. "Bet we get some snow tonight," he added.

"I hope so," she replied. "That trail is getting beat down pretty bad. Winter's been slow in coming this year."

Duane knew exactly what that meant. Usually snow could be expected in this neck of the woods by early November, sometimes late October, but this year it had been Thanksgiving before they had snow, and it was disappearing. Dogsledders in Alaska had been training on runners for a month or more, while they'd still been running on wheels. Now they were playing catch-up, pushing the dogs as hard as they could, increasing the length of the runs almost daily. "Not much we can do but keep at it," he shrugged.

"Can't think of anything either," she smiled. "I suppose we'd better head on back and feed some dogs before I go see what John's made for supper."

Daylight was no more than a bright smudge on the distant horizon of a dark sky on this short November day when Candice finally hopped in her minivan and headed for town, hopefully in time that she could do at least part of the dinner for her family. There were still a few odds and ends to be done among the dogs, each in their individual pens. He took his time; as far as he knew there wasn't much else to do tonight. Josh had told him they'd be starting night training as soon as they got a little more snow, and then he expected his days to be really full. He was beginning to feel a little hungry, and the leftover goulash didn't really appeal to him; maybe he could do something more elaborate to help pass the time. Steak, eggs, and hash browns, maybe? It sounded like it had potential.

He stepped out the back door of the dog barn, and walked across the open lot to the trailer where he lived. It was an old mobile home; it hadn't been new when Josh bought it a dozen years before. It was beat up, the floors were soft and there was lots of wear – but it seemed a luxurious place to winter over for a guy who spent his summers living in a sleeping bag under the stars.

Something seemed to not be right, but he was halfway across the lot before he figured out what it was: the lights were on in the trailer. He usually didn't leave them on, even when he knew he was going to be getting back after dark. And not just one light, either – several lights throughout the trailer. He wouldn't have done that; maybe Josh had come up to fix something . . . it wouldn't have been the first time . . . As he walked closer, he heard music – strange but somehow familiar harp music. Stranger and stranger . . .

Beside himself with curiosity but cautious, he quietly opened the door of the trailer and stepped inside. The smell hit him instantly – food, something unidentifiable, but exotic and good. Really curious now, he walked quietly toward the kitchen, where he saw familiar blonde hair stretching a long way down close to a bottom that somehow managed to be both slender and shapely. It was a familiar back and bottom, although he'd never expected to see them here, of all places.

"Michelle," he said in surprise to the woman at the stove, "What are you doing here?"

"Making my special marinara sauce," she turned and smiled at him. "Not the blend I make on the river, either."

Coming home to find Michelle making marinara sauce on his kitchen stove was about the last thing he could have expected. Finding Chica would have been much more likely. "I mean, here in Spearfish Lake," he said, reaching for something to say.

"Oh, I came for Myleigh's wedding," she replied. "You remember, I told you back at the wrap party that I was coming up for it."

"Michelle, I hate to point this out," he grinned, "But that's not for almost a month yet."

"I know," she smiled again. "Now that you're back, I can finish this up, but it's going to take a few minutes. You smell like dog or dog shit or something. Maybe you'd like to take a shower while I get the linguini going."

"Yeah, not a bad idea," he conceded, realizing he smelled a little rank, although that sort of went with the territory. Besides, a shower would give him a few minutes to get his composure in the face of this surprise: what was the most unique, enigmatic and capable woman he'd ever met doing making linguini and marinara sauce in his kitchen?

He'd first met Michelle on that memorable day at the Waynesville McDonald's, when she walked in with Crystal and Scooter. He'd known Scooter well, and had come to like her – not the easiest thing for a woman who smoked cigars and was so butch and brusque. Crystal had looked familiar but he hadn't been able to place her at the time. He'd originally written off Michelle as being the little sister of one or the other of them, fifteen, maybe sixteen at the most. Though he'd been told otherwise, it wasn't until they were on the river a few weeks later that the truth had finally started to sink in: this cute little teeny-bopper looking blonde was four years older than he was, and was the senior boatman in the company, except for Al, the owner. Starting at fifteen, she'd been running the Grand Canyon as a swamper and boatman for a dozen years, over a hundred trips. Michelle usually did just about what she wanted to do because there weren't many people who could tell her not to and make it stick.

But what was she doing here? It was a real puzzle as he slipped out of his clothes and headed to the shower. With Michelle, it was sometimes hard to tell; she'd evaded him twice and was capable of doing it as long as she wanted to. He knew, of course, that Myleigh was getting married up here at the end of December. He didn't know the little harp-playing English literature professor well, but in half a trip that spring had learned she was about as unique an individual in her own way as Michelle. The next trip – Duane hadn't been there, he'd been on another crew – Michelle had taken Myleigh, her boyfriend Trey, and about fifty thousand dollars of sound recording equipment down the Grand Canyon. That music was playing in the trailer now, an as-yet unreleased album called Canyon Tours. He remembered back at the wrap party, Michelle saying something about coming to the wedding and wanting to check out this dogsledding stuff, but it had been a remark made in passing and not, he thought, directed at him.

But with Michelle, who knew?

He got out of the shower, dried off, got on clean jeans and a flannel shirt, and headed out to the kitchen – to be greeted with yet another surprise. The lights had been turned down, and two candles were burning on the dinette table. Wondering what was going on, he glanced over in the direction of the stove to discover that while he'd been in the shower, Michelle had changed out of her sweatshirt and jeans into a sexy little black dress and pantyhose, and was wearing heels. She was always a good-looking woman, if looking a little young, but she looked closer to her age now, and rather sexy indeed. This was getting wilder and wilder. What in hell was going on here? Was she just trying to mess with his mind?

"It'll be a couple minutes yet," she purred before he could ask anything. "Would you like to pour the wine? I've left it open on the table to breathe."

"Wine, no less," he shook his head, glancing at the bottle of red sitting there. "Toto, I don't think we're in the Grand Canyon anymore."

"No," she sighed, "It's always too long to wait over the winter, and we may start a little later than we planned next spring, anyway. It's not a done deal yet, though."

"What's this?" he asked.

"Oh, Al is messing with the schedule again. I don't know the details, but you know, he's been trying to pull away from those late fall trips for a while, and move toward three full-season crews. There was talk of a couple special trips that would cut out some of those late launches."

Duane knew that Al had slowly been trying to move toward running three full crews on a slightly shorter season, so he could get away from having to rely on unpredictable pickup boatmen to fill out the crews in the spring and fall. "It really shouldn't affect us," he sighed.

"No," Michelle said, filling a plate with linguini. "But it means the winter is just going to be that damn much longer. It's too damn long as it is."

As addicted to the Canyon as Duane had become, it was no secret that Michelle had the disease at least ten times worse. What made it especially hard for her was that, until Dan started learning to run the place, she was one of only three people who knew the ins and outs of running the Canyon Tours office. Al and his wife Karin were the other two, and they liked to be out on the river, too. Michelle could only take so much time in the office before she got severe withdrawal symptoms, but the last three years she'd been stuck there more than she wanted – she much preferred to be running ten trips out of ten.

"It helps if you have something else to do in the winter," he commented as she set the plate on the table and went to fill the other one.

"Don't I know it," she sighed. She stopped what she was doing and looked at him. "Look, Duane," she said, "I hope you don't mind, but that's sorta why I'm here."

"Something else to do?"

"Yeah," she nodded as she went back to dishing up the dinner. "Look, you know the last couple years Crystal and Scooter and I have taken off helling around to get through the winter. Mary and I used to do it before that. For years, once we got through Thanksgiving, we'd load up snowboards and go hit the slopes. Well, I got through Thanksgiving, went out to get my snowboard, and then it hit me. Mary and Dave are down in Mexico, Scooter and Jim are there too, but were making sounds about going even farther south with their surfboards, and Crystal and Preach are somewhere in Georgia at some church or other."

"And you were stuck with no one to go with," he nodded with understanding as he held the chair for her to sit down. If she were going to go to the trouble of making an elaborate dinner, the least he could do was to be gentlemanly.

"Yeah," she sighed again as she sat down, and he walked around the table to sit across from her. "I figured, well, hell, I can scare up somebody, so I drove up to Aspen. But shit, do you have any idea how many cute girls are running around there looking to score? I'm not a loner, Duane. I like being with people. I all but turned around and headed back to Flag, but realized that if I did, Al would stick me in the office and take off somewhere with Karin. So, then I remembered you were here and doing something that is a hell of a lot more interesting than hanging around some ski town by myself. So, here I am. I talked with Josh and Tiffany; they said the more, the merrier. After Myleigh's wedding, I'm still going to Florida and the Bahamas like I planned. After that, I don't know, but I suppose I can go back to Flag and help rig or something. But at least this gives me a month doing something different with a friend."

It made sense, he thought to himself. It didn't exactly answer the question of what she was doing in a sexy black dress across a candlelit table from him, but the one thing you could be sure about with Michelle was she was capable of doing the unexpected. "Well, glad to be of service," he said truthfully. "It's been a little lonely around here. There's some good people here, but they have their own families and lives to deal with, so it gets a little lonely at times."

"Crystal told me one time that there were some pretty good people here," she commented as she picked up a fork and started on her dinner, "And that this was as much home as she really had outside of Flag."

"I don't know all the ins and outs," he shrugged, "But I do know that thanks to Crystal there's a pretty good connection between here and Canyon Tours."

"I'd heard that, but I don't know who's who. Can you tell me something about it?"

"It's not real simple," he replied. "And, I'm not real sure where to start. I suppose it has to start with Crystal and Myleigh going to Northern Michigan University up on Lake Superior in Marquette, and meeting Randy there."

Over the next few minutes, Duane filled in the story of Run-8 and the people involved, at least as well as he knew it. He told her about Josh and Tiffany, Phil's buying out the operation but still having Josh and Tiffany raise and train dogs for him.

"They tried giving the big race a skip with the JV team last year," Duane explained. They didn't like the way it worked out, so the initial thinking was that Josh or Tiffany was going to take the JVs this year. Then Josh got too busy with this railroad he manages, and Tiffany got pregnant, so they had to find someone else. Candice helped with the training last year and has the talent for it. She's Josh's sister-in-law, she's pretty cool."

"So where do Randy and Nicole fit in?"

"Just friends," Duane shrugged. "Most of the training is kind of like training for a marathon, a lot of miles at speed. Since there are over a hundred dogs involved in teams of ten or so, it takes a lot of musher time. The worst of it is done by Phil, Candice and me, but there are others who help out now and then, so the three of us get to do something besides look at dog assholes. Most of them are unpaid, and just do it out of friendship and for the hell of it. Josh and Tiffany, of course, but her dad, his brother-in-law and half-sister, Randy and Nicole, Phil's brother-in-law and his fiancee, some of the other local mushers and I don't necessarily even know them all. You don't have to be real talented at it, so I'd expect someone will give you a few lessons, and you'll be out there too."

"Cool," she smiled. "That's going to be something way different from trying to be sexy on a ski slope."

They talked on about dogsledding for a few minutes, then the subject drifted back to their friends and the Grand Canyon. "I still can't believe Crystal and Preach got married," he commented. "I wonder how much more that's going to tighten Team 2 up. At one time Team 2 had been about the most fun of the three Canyon Tours teams on the river. Now it's the straightest. I made a trip and a half with them over the summer and was a little relieved to be switched to Team 1 for the last trip of the season."

"No shit," she shook her head. "And it's likely to get worse before it gets better."

"How's that?" he asked with curiosity.

"Long story," she sighed. "Al says business has been down a little. The economy and 9/11 are a part of that, but he hasn't been making out real well on the late fall trips that are only half full, if that. To make a long story short, if he's going to concentrate business in the warmer months he has to come up with some new angles. He and Preach cooked up an idea to try and sell a couple all-Christian trips, conducted by a Baptist minister." She shook her head. "I'll tell you what, I'd be just about ready to work in the office to avoid those."

"Yeah, right," he nodded in agreement. "It gets bad enough when you're trying to explain that some rock layer was laid down so many million years ago and some pinheaded creationist wants to argue that they can't be more than 4600 years old or whatever the hell it is."

"Right," she sighed. "I can imagine a whole trip load of them. I like the Canyon, but some of the people we have to on the trips can take the fun right out of it. I don't want to quit doing the Canyon, but there are limits. How about you? Are you coming back?"

"Unless something really unexpected happens," he told her. "You probably know I was trying to get into the Park Service. I've given up on that, at least for the time being. That was my dream for a lot of years, but the last couple years I've come to realize the Park Service jobs are a lot of scut work, while at least in the Grand Canyon we rafters are the ones who have the fun. It's not necessarily like that everywhere in the Park Service, but I figure I've got a better job now, in spite of everything."

"That's good to know," she nodded. "Al was a little concerned that you'd get sucked into this dog sledding and not come back."

"No, it's just a good winter job," he shrugged. "I don't know if Candice plans on running after this year. If she doesn't there might be the chance to do the Iditarod in another year or two. If that chance comes, I'd probably take it. But it still would just be in the winter, getting started with training along in the early fall and be done with it by the end of March. In any case, I don't think it's something I'd want to build my life around. There's too many other things to do. You mentioned Scooter and Jim down surfing in Mexico. That strikes me as a good way to spend a winter sometime. It's too long since I've been able to do some serious surfing, and I won't do any this winter."

"Oh, jeez!" she exclaimed. "You're a surfer, too? I didn't know that."

"Oh, yes, I'm a surfer," he grinned. "Crystal gets blamed for that, indirectly."

"How's that? At college or something? You said you didn't really know her there."

"I didn't," he nodded. "You know that Crystal, Myleigh, and Randy used to surf on Lake Superior."

"Right," she laughed. "I've heard Myleigh say, 'We were among a small group who were considered to be either demigods or certifiable lunatics for daring to surf upon Superior's icewater mansions.'"

"I've heard her say that, too," he smiled. "To make a long story short, Crystal got a guy by the name of Gary Powell interested in it. He rafted with her in the Ocoee a couple summers. About the time she left he got to going with a girl by the name of Ruth Sadowitz. Ruth was a California surfer girl and damn good. The year after Crystal left they got me interested. That's why my trail name on the AT was 'Icewater.'"

"I'd heard the trail name but never knew the story," she smiled. "I've heard it never gets much warmer than the river."

"If that," he nodded. "Once in a while in the late summer, you might find a little water that hits maybe sixty, but that's rare. To be honest, Crystal, Myleigh, and Randy were doing their surfing in wet suits, and no wonder it was cold for them. Gary, Ruth, and I switched to dry suits, and we'd be out in conditions they'd never have thought of trying. There are still some crazies up there; the three of us infected a few more people."

"Wow, did you ever surf warm water?"

"Some," he grinned. "I was rafting the Nanty a couple summers when Gary was on the Ocoee; we went out to the Outer Banks several times on our days off. Knock off work, drive all night, surf all day, drive all night and to work the next morning. Good training for the Canyon. I'd love to try Hawaii or something some time, maybe the chance will come sooner or later. The last I heard from Gary, he and Ruth were in LA somewhere; he said the breaks were crowded as hell and the waves really weren't all that damn good."

"I've surfed in California, but it's all been off season, so they weren't all that crowded," she smiled. "Crystal, Scooter, and I went to Hawaii last winter for a week; it was pretty good. We were on Maui, so it wasn't quite as crowded as the north shore of Oahu gets. It was pretty expensive, but we were on a tight schedule and didn't want to take the time to work out a way to cheap it out."

"It's been a couple years for me," he admitted. "I thought about trying to catch the tail end of the season on Superior right after I got here, but I was busy; my board is in southern Michigan and that's not something you want to do by yourself, anyway. I didn't think about it till too late, but Randy has a spare board or two lying around; he might have been able to get free for a couple days. Maybe if the rafting season starts a little late I might be able to go somewhere for a few days after I get done in Alaska."

"What's the deal in Alaska? You're not going up there to race, right?"

"Just going to be a spare pair of hands during the final training, pretty much," he shrugged. "During a couple of the opening sections, they run with doubled sleds and a second musher just to help keep the dogs under control around the crowds. I'll probably get that much of it. Then hang around till the race is over with, and help load up to come back. That gives me a few days to explore a little, maybe get a few more stories to tell on the river."

"You've got more than a lot of the rafters we have," she smiled. "You've gotten around a lot."

"A little," he shrugged. "Like you, like a lot of people we know, I'm an outdoor bum."

They finished dinner, did the dishes, and then settled onto the couch in the living room with the rest of the bottle of wine. They had an awful lot in common, the Canyon hardly the least of it. They managed to talk about people they knew, pass on gossip, and just enjoy being together. Finally, he had to call a halt.

"Michelle," he said. "We kind of have to keep river time here, so it's getting late. I'm going to have to get up about five so I can feed dogs and have a bite myself before Phil and Candice get here to get some trail time in." Guides usually had to be up until most of the customers were down for the night, and tried to be up well before they were stirring. It meant short nights and long days, but they were used to it. The same thing held true here.

"Fine with me," she smiled. "I know how it works; I'm still pretty much on river time myself."

He'd already noticed that she'd put a couple bags in the small bedroom – which was small indeed, with only room for a single bed. He didn't need much bathroom time before he went to bed, so she let him run in front of her. In a few minutes, he was in his bedroom, taking off his clothes – he normally slept nude, except on the hottest summer nights down in the Canyon when even a sheet was too much. There were nights when he'd only worn a swimsuit out in the open all night.

All through the evening, he could hardly help being aware of the good-looking blonde in the sexy black dress. It had stirred memories – not so much of Chica, but of some of the things they'd done. Now, the sounds of her in the bathroom, making girl type noises as she got ready for bed just added to the juices that were flowing. It had been a long time – but this was Michelle, she had her own agenda. Maybe he ought to consider approaching her – well, not tonight, but sometime . . .

He was still thinking about it when his bedroom door opened. The lights were out now, but enough remained to see her, a slightly brighter spot in the darkness. "Hey, Duane," she said softly. "Slide over."

"Michelle?" he said in surprise, even as he started to slip sideways to make room for her.

"You don't think I came all this way to sleep by myself, do you?" he heard her voice, light with a touch of tease in it. "It's been a long time since I've had a fuck buddy."

He felt the covers open, felt the bed depress as she lay down beside him – and felt the warmth of her body as she snuggled up to him. Even in the dark he quickly sensed that she was as nude as he was, as he felt her hand on the side of his head. "Mich . . ." he started to stay, but his words were stopped by the warm, wet taste of her lips on his, her tongue in his mouth.

Some infinity later her lips pulled away. "How do you like it?" he heard her whisper. "Wild and athletic, or slow and romantic?"

"However you want it," he whispered back, realizing that was what she was going to get anyway.

"Usually I sort of like it wild," she whispered back, that smirk in her voice again. "But after that candlelight and wine, I think I'm in the mood for romantic."

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