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

Winter Layoff
a novel by
Wes Boyd
2011, 2013

Chapter 9

Within five miles Jim was starting to have second thoughts about the whole project. He knew the dump truck rode rough, since he’d driven it often enough before – but it had been a while, and mostly he’d put the bad memories in the back of his mind. They were barely out on the state road, with Bob following along behind in the pickup, before how bad the dump truck rode came back to him.

It was a handful to drive, no doubt about it, and being empty and towing the trailer loaded with the backhoe didn’t help matters any. It was noisy as hell, for another thing, and the truck was old enough that the weather stripping left a lot to be desired. Even with the heater going full blast, it was cold in the cab and didn’t seem like it would ever warm up much – at least till they got to some distance south where it was warmer outside. To top it off, it wasn’t very fast. It seemed to do all right at fifty, but if he got going very much faster the vibrations and the wheel shaking made it almost undriveable.

There was nothing he could do but kick himself. If he’d realized just how generous Randy was going to be, he could have asked for one of the newer trucks that rode better and went faster, but he was trying to not make a pest of himself, and now he was paying the price.

Jesus, Jim thought. And we’re going to drive this damn thing clear down to the Gulf Coast? I must have had a hole straight through my head to think of using this one

Oh, well, they were on their way now, so there was no point in turning back. After all, a few days before he’d been planning to do the job by hand, and that would have taken months. As rough as this thing rode and as much of a pain in the ass as it was to drive, it was going to make things a whole lot simpler.

Ken’s offer to draw up some house plans and the conversation in the Clark Construction office had put the whole project in a completely different light. God knew many problems were still there, and they were pretty much the same problems he’d told his mother about back at Christmas, but there seemed to be the potential for solutions for some of them. For example, he had little doubt that he and Bob – and maybe Rachel and Randy – could recruit enough volunteer help among the Clark workers on winter layoff to make building a house a possibility. It seemed likely that someone in the crowd would know what it would take to run a job like that.

Materials were another issue where there was a glimmer of a solution. From what little he knew, the high cost of building materials around the Gulf Coast was a real problem in trying to do this job and fit it into a limited budget – if materials could be found at all. But almost everything would be easy to find around Spearfish Lake, and some of it might even be cheap. For example, Jim knew that most of the sheathing they used on jobs in the summer came from Clark Plywood, which made the stuff. It seemed likely that with a little bit of promotion he might be able to get that sheathing at cost. Other stuff might be available at off-season prices, which would also bring the cost down. Getting it down to the coast seemed like less of a problem. Clark Construction had an old but decent semi-tractor that they used to haul heavy machinery like cranes and graders to jobs. He might be able to talk Randy out of that, especially if it was another tax write-off deal. Most of it could probably be hauled on the gooseneck lowboy that was normally used to haul the equipment.

Thoughts formed slowly as he wrestled to herd the dump truck down the road. Over the miles south to the Camden bypass, several things seemed to fall into place, at least a little bit. If the slab was still usable – and there was no telling. If enough free help could be recruited, and if he could buy or promote the materials locally in Spearfish Lake, then he might be able to get a house built for Aunt Rita and Uncle John by spring. That was if Rachel and especially Randy continued to be helpful, and if they had a late spring so there’d be no need to go back to Spearfish Lake early for work. Most especially, if by bringing in materials from Spearfish Lake and the use of volunteer labor the insurance settlement money could be stretched far enough that Uncle John and Aunt Rita would be willing to take on a relatively small disaster relief loan for the balance. There were plenty of other ifs lying out there, probably some of which he had no idea existed, and even the ones he knew about he didn’t have much control over.

But maybe, just maybe, it could be done.

One thing seemed clear: he and Bob had to get the house pad cleared off as quickly as possible while they were in Pass Christian so he could get back to Spearfish Lake and work on some of those other issues. They at least had to get enough of the rubble cleared away to see if the existing house pad could be used – if not, it might not be an insurmountable problem, but it would be another one that would have to be solved. Until that one was figured out, it wasn’t worth worrying about some of the other ifs – at least while he had to herd this beast down the highway.

Before they left, he and Bob had agreed that they’d stop and change off driving the vehicles every couple hours – they’d remembered that driving the dump truck was bad, but apparently not how bad it really was. About two hours out Jim found a good place at a highway rest area for them to pull over to switch. Since this whole thing was his idea, he really didn’t want to have to dump driving the big truck on Bob, but he needed the break, too. It was his project, so he’d try to take the brunt of the bad driving, though. He pulled to a stop in the truck parking area, which was largely empty, and Bob stopped the pickup alongside. Jim set the parking brake and got out of the truck, glad to be on solid ground again.

“How’s it going?” Bob asked as they stood out in the bitter wind.

“You ever hear the phrase that something drives like a truck? That’s the truck,” Jim shook his head.

“Yeah, it was pretty bad last summer,” Bob agreed. “You weren’t going much over fifty.”

“It doesn’t want to go much faster than that without shaking your fillings out,” Jim shook his head.

“Christ, we’re going to get passed by everybody, even old-granny women in their model A’s,” Bob said. “But I guess we’re just going to have to live with it.”

“Pretty much,” Jim agreed. “Why don’t you lead and I’ll follow at whatever speed you’re comfortable with. We’re going to want to stop for lunch and to top off with fuel in another couple hours.”

“Sounds good to me, but this shows all the signs of being a long trip.”

“Every bit of it,” Jim agreed as he headed for the pickup.

It was a lot better riding in the pickup – about like riding in a Cadillac. The ride felt that much better. He followed Bob back out onto the highway, noting that Bob got the dump truck and backhoe up to about sixty for a ways, but he noted that soon the speed fell off to fifty-five, and then to fifty, and sometimes under that. Apparently Bob wasn’t having much better luck with the dump truck than he was, and he started doing some figuring.

Twelve hundred miles, call it. If they could manage fifty, that was twenty-four hours on the road, and with that truck it could most likely take longer. The stops to tank up and eat would add some time, too. Even if they managed to stay on the road twelve hours a day and not stop for anything, it would be two days, and Jim wasn’t sure he’d want to drive that thing for six hours in a day, anyway. Four would be plenty, and what with everything else it might be all that could be managed, so there was three days to get down there, every bit of it. Say, three days to do the cleanup, and that was a real optimistic guess, then three days back. If any problems came up at all, it could mean being gone every minute of two weeks.

And they could probably use the extra time down there. To build a house was one thing, but to make sure all the permits and paperwork and stuff was done right was another. One of the things Jim hadn’t even thought about was whether there was utility service available in the neighborhood yet – electricity, water, gas, sewer, phone. He hadn’t seen signs of any of it in the area, and he hadn’t asked. That could be a knotty problem, too, and might make the whole exercise pointless. Well, not pointless, but more difficult, and even if the house were completed it could delay Rita and John moving in. That was another problem that probably wasn’t unsolvable, but would have to be dealt with, and he didn’t have the foggiest idea of where to start. Yeah, it could take every bit of two weeks when he figured those kinds of problems in. There were bound to be others, and the deadline of the winter layoff ending was unknown, but still laying there.

The couple of hours passed quickly – at least for Jim, although he was betting that they weren’t a quick for Bob. Finally, he saw Bob pull off the road and head for a truck stop, just a little short of the two hours, but Jim figured that it was probably best to grab something while they could.

Bob pulled the rig up to a diesel pump and started filling the dump truck, while Jim pulled over to a nearby gasoline pump and topped off the truck. At the speed they’d been going it wasn’t down as much as he would have thought for the distance travelled. Jim paid for filling both the vehicles with the Donna Clark Foundation credit card, and they pulled the trucks into a parking area and went in to get some lunch.

“Jesus,” Bob said as soon as they were out of the wind. “I remember that thing driving bad, but I don’t remember it driving that bad.”

“Me, either,” Jim said. “It’s always been a pain in the ass to herd down the road, but I don’t remember the steering wheel shaking like that.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Bob said. “Something is wrong. One of the front tires is out of round, or something, and if it’s shaking like that it’s not going to be very good on the front end. I sure as hell don’t want to drive it clear the hell down to the Gulf Coast with it doing that. If something breaks, we could really be in deep shit.”

They talked it over for a while and agreed on one thing – whatever was wrong with the truck, something had to be done. “It’s like this,” Jim said finally. “I think we’d better call Randy and see what he wants us to do. It’s only like four hours back to Spearfish Lake, we could go back and get another truck, or we could get it fixed on the road someplace. I think it’s his call.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right on that. I don’t know if we can get it fixed in this town or not, but there’s a fairly big town an hour up the road. There ought to be a place where we could get it worked on, maybe get a new tire, or whatever.”

“Then I guess we’d better call before the day gets much longer,” Jim said. “Randy often knocks off early in the winter. I’ll go call before our food gets here.”

As it turned out Randy was still in the office. Jim explained the problem to him and offered the options. “Might as well get it fixed on the road,” Randy said after he’d heard Jim out. “We could change a tire here, but if it’s something serious it’d have to go to a shop anyway, and it would cost about as much either way. Even if it turns out to be more expensive, we can still write it off. Coming back here would cost you pretty close to a day, and longer if it takes more time to fix.”

“Glad you said that,” Jim replied. “I don’t think Bob or I want to have to drive it back as far as Spearfish Lake, anyway.”

“Give me a couple minutes. I’ll get on the internet and see if I can find a place for you to take it, maybe call down and see if they can get you right in.”

“How about if I call back after I eat lunch?” Jim suggested, and Randy said that would be fine.

Both Jim and Bob had gotten the special, the hot roast beef sandwich, good trucker food that filled them up. They decided to have another cup of coffee, and Jim went to call Randy back. Randy was able to give him the name and location of a truck service agency in the town about fifty miles ahead, and he’d been told they could get them right in.

It was Jim’s turn to drive the truck after lunch, and under the circumstances – since this whole thing had been his idea, after all – he would have driven it anyway. After his conversation with Bob, he was just a little leery getting behind the wheel, but it had to be done. In a few minutes they were out on the highway.

Sure enough, when he got up to speed the shaking of the front end was even worse than before. It wasn’t just his imagination, either – he didn’t dare drive it anywhere near as fast as he’d gone in the morning. By the time they got where they were going, thirty-five was about all the faster he wanted to go, and traffic was blowing past them as they kept to the right lane, emergency flashers going.

It was a huge relief to get off the four-lane where Jim felt he could drive even more slowly. The truck agency was easy to find, not far off the highway, and the people there knew they were coming. They had to uncouple the trailer to run the truck inside.

Both Jim and Bob were decent mechanics – it goes with being heavy equipment operators – and they were looking right over the truck agency mechanic’s shoulder as he examined the front tire. In only seconds, they found a huge knot in the side of the right front tire. “Jesus,” Jim said. “I looked that over before we left. Where the hell did that come from?”

“Me, too,” Bob agreed. “It wasn’t there when we looked at it Friday.”

“This stuff happens,” the agency mechanic said. “You need a new tire for sure, no question about that, but I’d be concerned about what’s happened to the tie rod ends with it shaking like you say has been happening.”

“It’s been shaking hard,” Jim agreed. “I was worried about that, too.”

“Well, we’ll give it a good look when we get it jacked up,” the mechanic said.

It took a while to get the front end of the truck up in the air enough to be able to work on it, but once it was done, the mechanic took one look at the tie rod end and announced, “Shit, I wouldn’t drive that around the block.”

Both Jim and Bob took a look at the thing and how worn and loose it was, and pretty much agreed with him. “Well, at least we found out now, rather than in the middle-of-nowhere Mississippi,” Jim said. “Let’s get it fixed.”

“All right, I have to go check in the parts department,” the mechanic said.

He was back in a few minutes. “Bad news, guys,” he said. “We don’t have the tie rod ends we’ll need, but they should be here in the morning. Just as bad, we don’t have a tire that size in stock, although we can have that in the morning, too. Besides, even if we had the stuff I couldn’t get it fixed today. It’s getting too close to quitting time.”

“I was sort of wondering about that,” Jim said. “Well, if you can’t deal with it now, you can’t deal with it now. Any problem if we stay in our camper in the parking lot?”

“Not that I know of,” the mechanic said.

“The hell with that,” Bob said. “We’ve got that foundation credit card. Let’s use it on a good motel, maybe one that has a bar. We’re going to be sleeping in that camper enough as it is.”

“Talked me into it,” Jim said. “At least we’ve got the pickup to go find one. But shit, waste a whole goddamn day and we’re still in Wisconsin.”

“Better a motel in Wisconsin than in a ditch in Wisconsin, or anywhere else,” Bob pointed out.

“When you put it that way, I can’t disagree with you.”

The service manager was able to point them at a reasonable motel a couple miles away – it had a good restaurant and a small bar. It still seemed early to have dinner, and after his troubles with Carolyn Jim wasn’t someone who wanted to spend the evening with a drink in his hand. Fortunately, there was a big chain drug store not far away that seemed to sell everything but drugs, and Jim was able to find two or three magazines that he thought might interest him, and a couple paperback murder mysteries that looked like they might have potential. If he didn’t get them read tonight, there probably would be other down time coming later, and he thought he could get to them sometime. Bob wasn’t much of a reader but hunted around on the many cable TV channels they seemed to have and found a replay of a basketball game that managed to capture his interest a little.

Several hours went by before they went out to dinner, right there at the restaurant and bar in the motel. The menu turned out to be better than the food – it was nothing like as satisfying as the meal had been at the truck stop in the early afternoon and was considerably more expensive, but at least it filled the bill. After they finished eating, they sat at the table, each having a beer mostly because they couldn’t think of anything much else to do.

“This is really pretty damn frustrating,” Jim said. “I mean, I’ve got my mind made up to do this, and now it’s just a pain in the ass to have to sit and wait. After that discussion we had with Rachel and Ken this morning, I’ve got a couple ideas about how I could maybe get my aunt and uncle into a house this spring. It’d be a reach, but now that it looks like it might be possible I feel like I’m just wasting time.”

“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it, too,” Bob said. “I don’t think it would be any great trick to get a crew of guys to join us down south and pitch in on a deal like that, so long as it didn’t last too long, or run into spring.”

“Right. Whatever happens is going to have to be done by the time we get through mud season and have to get back to work.”

Over the course of the next fifteen or twenty minutes, he gave Bob an outline of what he’d worked out over the day – and the problems that he’d thought of that would have to be solved. Just laying it out in front of Bob, rather than just letting it bounce back in forth in his head, seemed to simplify a few things, but it made others seem more complicated. Bob asked a few questions here and there, and made a few suggestions, some of which Jim thought had merit, others not. For instance, when Jim mentioned using the Clark Construction flatbed to haul lumber and other building materials down there, he said, “It sounds good, but maybe you ought to talk to the guys over at Brine Brothers Trucking. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could borrow a box semi-trailer for something like the relief project we’re doing. You could get more in it, and it’d be more protected from the weather and the road crap, which is something to think about this time of the year with snow, road salt, and slop.”

“Yeah,” Jim nodded. “That’s a good one. I hadn’t thought about that.” They didn’t really solve anything with the whole discussion, but at least after it was over with, and Jim thought he had the remaining problems a little more clearly organized in his mind.

Although they had a second beer, neither of them felt like sitting around the bar drinking for the rest of the evening, so they headed back to their room and found another basketball game to help fill the time, and then finally called it a night. At least it was more comfortable than sleeping in the back of the camper, especially since it was still cold enough outside that the heater wouldn’t have done a very good job.

The next morning they took their time getting breakfast, then headed back over to the garage where they’d left the dump truck. The service manager didn’t have a very happy expression on his face when he saw them walk in. “You guys ain’t gonna like this,” he said. “We got a tire and it’s mounted, but I’m having one hell of a time getting tie rod ends for a truck that old. I managed to track some down in Chicago, and I’m having them sent up here by FedEx, emergency special delivery. But I don’t expect to have them here before tomorrow morning at the earliest.”

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To be continued . . .
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