Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
It was hot in the bank that afternoon. Air conditioning hadn’t quite made it to Spearfish Lake yet, and really, there weren’t that many days it was needed. It was too cold a lot more than it was too hot, and the hot weather was something most people stoically put up with until cooler weather came along. Still, it was stifling to be wearing a suit and tie inside on a day like today. In spite of everything, Garth would rather have been out at the club with Helga and the kids; it would be much cooler, and if it still got too bad, at least there he’d be able to take a dip in the lake.
It was just a few more hours until he could get in the Roadmaster and go out to the club. It would be good to strip off his clothes and run into the lake to wash off some of the sweat and perhaps lower his body temperature a few degrees.
Garth was mostly thinking about how good it would feel, so didn’t notice Donna Clark sticking her head in the door. “Hello, Garth,” she said tentatively. “How are you today?”
“Hot,” he replied neutrally, a little surprised at himself that he could manage to be that civil to his ex-wife; maybe the heat had something to do with it. Fifteen years before, back in ’40 and ’41, he would have been just as willing to take his service automatic to her as he would speak to her. But time had tempered things, at least a little. “How about you?”
“Just as hot,” she replied tentatively. The two of them were on speaking terms, barely, but only if it involved something important, so she got right down to business. “Have you heard anything from Barbara recently?”
“Not in months,” Garth shook his head. “The last I heard she was in Los Angeles, and that was back in the winter sometime. How about you?”
“It’s been a couple of months,” Donna replied, “and then she didn’t say much of anything.”
“Figures,” he snorted. As far as he was concerned, Donna had messed up Barbara’s head so thoroughly while he’d been away in the war that she’d never get it straight again. But that was an old issue they’d fought about before, and there was no point in getting into it again on such a hot day – all it would do would be to set off yet another yelling match, and he wasn’t in the mood for it in the heat. She knew how he felt about it anyway, of course.
Back before the war, Garth and Donna had been parents to two children, Barbara, born in 1932 and Frank, born only a few months before D Battery had been mobilized. Back before the war the two of them had an adequate, if not exactly placid marriage. Back then, Garth had thought of Donna as a do-gooder, a social climber such as those things were in Spearfish Lake in those days, and mostly a pain in the neck. She’d never seemed to have much time for Barbara and was always calling a sitter or leaving her with him so she could attend some sort of social function or fundraiser.
Actually, as the wife of the junior Vice-President of the bank, as Garth had been back when his father Caleb was still alive, it hadn’t been all bad. A banker’s wife was supposed to be a pillar of the community, so if there was a charity cause she was involved with it, sometimes heading it – women’s club, Red Cross, March of Dimes, and so on. But all of that didn’t leave her much time to be a wife and mother, and that had caused problems.
Things really didn’t go bad until Donna decided to trade one of the richer men in town for the richest, Wayne Clark. Even today Garth didn’t fully understand why it had come about, although he suspected that D Battery being called up had something to do with it, if for no more reason than he wouldn’t be around to keep an eye on her. Still, from everything Garth had heard in the years since, the train hauling the battery and its old Great War ’75s south to Fort Knox barely made it out of sight before Donna and Wayne were making whoopee in Wayne’s hunting cabin out northeast of County Road 919.
Garth liked to think he could have overlooked it, if it had been a one-time thing and kept extremely quiet, but Donna and Wayne didn’t even try for either one. It didn’t take long for word of the affair to filter down to Kentucky, which meant that it was already long known all over town. It was not unknown in those days for strained marriages to come apart on the rocks of war, and it wasn’t the only such story Garth had known of – in fact, not even the only one in D Battery. But it hurt Garth badly to get that kind of support from a wife when he was off to war.
Initially he’d more or less figured on waiting until after the war to deal with Donna. But the news he kept hearing from Spearfish Lake soon made it clear that not only was there no chance of healing things, there was also no point in letting her continue to hang horns on him. Divorces were not easy to arrange in those days, especially having to do it from Kentucky, and later Fort Dix in New Jersey. Since there were two small children involved and there really wasn’t much Garth could do about them, he conceded custody to her for the duration of the war as being the lesser of two evils. Taking that issue up was something that would have to wait until after beating Hitler.
When D Battery came marching home in 1945, Garth had a list of things he wanted to accomplish; getting custody of the kids and slapping Donna down in the process were far and away the first items on it. The custody battle turned into a real war on its own, and only got tentatively resolved through the mediation of Brent Clark, Garth’s best friend and Wayne’s son. The agreement satisfied nobody, but at least was favorable enough to both sides to keep the hunting rifles from being broken out. But ever since then, Garth and Donna had been taking potshots at each other, trying to slap each other down whenever possible, and it had only tapered off slightly in recent years.
Worse, after Donna married Wayne, it very much strained relations between the bank and the town’s largest employer. Before the war Garth and Wayne had been at least friendly, if not close friends. These days they could do business with each other if there was a real need to, but any kind of a social friendship was out of the question. At that, it was a big improvement from the days right after the war when Clark Plywood had been forced to pay its workers in cash, rather than with checks drawn on the bank.
Garth had often wondered why Wayne had bothered to marry Donna in the first place. From his limited perspective, the two were not close. He really couldn’t see how Donna could lead Wayne around by the nose as much as she did; he knew from personal experience that she wasn’t exactly thrilling as a lover or a wife.
“Thanks, Garth,” Donna said as a matter of common courtesy. “Try to stay cool.” She might have been talking about the heat, or she might not have been.
He didn’t want to have to figure out which, but on the odd chance that it had been a subtle snide remark he decided to throw one back at her. “Yeah, I’m looking forward to going out to the cabin and jumping in the lake,” he said, then, knowing full well that Wayne and Donna’s palatial cottage was right on the lakefront on Point Drive, added, “You’re welcome to come join us.”
Donna got both embarrassed and angry at the seemingly pleasant offer. “Over my dead body,” she snorted as she turned to walk away.
It wasn’t any cooler outside than it was inside that afternoon, and it definitely wasn’t any cooler working out in the sun at the top of a telephone pole, which was what Phil Gravengood had been doing. Working for the phone company brought in a regular income, which was more than he could say for flying.
Phil had been one of the D Battery members called up in 1940 from Spearfish Lake. In 1941 a circular had come around looking for artillerymen wanting to learn to spot artillery fire from airplanes, which involved learning to fly. That was something he’d always wanted to do, but there had never been the money available – or the time to do it, for that matter. There had been a small airport at Spearfish Lake since the WPA had built it as a make-work project in the thirties, but it only featured a single grass runway and a small hangar. Neither got used very much, and then mostly by people who had flown in to get to their summer cottages.
After he’d learned to fly, Phil had an adventurous war as a liaison pilot, sometimes spotting artillery fire, but more often hauling brass around, or occasionally flying casualties in an L-4 – the military version of the familiar Piper J-3 Cub. He’d never made it back to D Battery, or even the 144th, but had developed a real love for flying light airplanes.
While he was in the service he thought about how he could fly after the war. There was that perfectly good airport there at Spearfish Lake, and in the period immediately after the war it had been anticipated that the world would take to the air. After he mustered out, he picked up a war surplus L-4 and converted it back into a J-3, mostly by repainting it into the normal Cub yellow. He’d picked up a commercial and an instructor certificate, and set up shop at the airport.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that he starved to death, but there were times that things got a little hungry for Phil, his wife Rose, and his sons Larry, born before the war, and Mark, born afterwards. Making a living by teaching people to fly, pumping gas, and occasionally flying someone somewhere out of the Spearfish Lake airport soon turned into an evening and weekend thing. He wouldn’t have been able to do it at all if he hadn’t been able to go back to work at the Spearfish Lake Telephone Company, which helped to make ends meet. Since the company was a local outfit, the boss was a little flexible when Phil had to take off to spend some time keeping his part-time business going. Rose played her part too by going out to the airport to pump gas when someone called up and said they needed it. He’d taught her to fly, not as a commercial pilot, but as a private pilot – and she enjoyed it, too.
The J-3 proved to be a little marginal for anything more than instruction and giving rides, and when Phil had a chance to buy a faster four-seat Stinson 108-1 Voyager at a good price, he jumped on the deal since he could occasionally fly someone somewhere with it. He really wasn’t making much money out of the deal, but he wasn’t losing much, either – and it gave him almost enough flight time satisfy him.
But tonight it was good to be on the ground, neither in the air nor up a phone pole. The company was starting to get things set up to switch over to direct-dial phones – Spearfish Lake still had the old hand-crank system, where an operator had to be called to make a connection. Running the switchboard downtown was starting to be too much for one operator at a time to handle, so the change couldn’t come soon enough for anyone, although the change-over was still likely to be as much as a year off.
He walked in the door, glad to be home for the day. “So how’d it go today, honey?” he asked.
“I had to go out to the airport twice,” she replied. “I sold about forty-five gallons of eighty octane.”
“Well, that’s something,” he said. “Every little bit helps.”
“Oh, you got a package,” she said. “It must be that sensitive altimeter you ordered for the Cub.”
“Good, I’ve been waiting for it,” he replied. The old-fashioned non-sensitive altimeter in the J-3 had been sticking, and it had been a pain in the neck anyway. When he’d seen an ad for a new sensitive altimeter at a real good price in Trade-A-Plane, the lemon-yellow aviation shopper that arrived three times a month, he’d sent off an order. “But I’ll tell you what, I don’t think I want to go out and put it in the Cub tonight. I’m thinking I just want to take it easy. What would you think of going down to the beach for a swim, and then maybe stopping at the A&W afterwards?”
“I was going to suggest the same thing to you,” she smiled. “I really wasn’t in the mood to cook tonight, anyway.”
The slow train braked to a stop just short of Stoner Creek. It had been a long, slow trip for the boys, Scoutmaster Jim Blanchard thought, but at least it was over with now. For the next several days they would finally be doing what they were here for, which was to have a good time on what would be a big adventure for the kids.
Even though Jim didn’t want to keep the train waiting to unload them any longer than necessary, it was a hassle to wrestle the six canoes out of the boxcar, along with all the other gear they’d brought with them. That included tents, sleeping bags, food, canoe paddles, and all the other paraphernalia needed for nearly two weeks of camping and canoeing. Since they were in a hurry, they worked quickly, and most of the stuff just wound up in a pile off to one side of the tracks.
Once it looked like they were done Jim climbed up into the boxcar to see if any gear had been missed in the unloading, but he couldn’t see any – the floor of the car was bare. “Does that do it?” the conductor asked as he dropped down the big jump from the open door of the car.
“Let me get a quick nose count,” Jim replied. A quick look assured him that he had all ten of the boys, along with the assistant scoutmaster, Dale Bunting. “Yep, that’ll do it,” he told the conductor. “Thanks for waiting for us.”
“No big deal,” the man replied, waving to the engineer to get moving. “You have a good trip.”
“We sure hope to,” Jim told him as there was a brief toot on the whistle to announce that the engineer was getting the train moving. It began to inch forward, and when the caboose came by, the conductor swung up onto the step and stood waving goodbye to them.
Jim turned to Dale. “I sure hope you didn’t leave anything on the caboose,” he commented.
“I don’t think so, and I checked before I got off.”
“Good enough.” He glanced down the bank to the narrow creek. “Not a lot of room down there,” he said after a moment’s observation. “I suppose we’d better get organized up here, and then just skid the canoes down the bank loaded.”
“Sounds good to me,” the assistant scoutmaster replied. “Sure is nice to have these aluminum canoes. We could never do that with those old wood and canvas jobs we had when I took my first trip with the troop.” This would be the first trip the troop had made with all aluminum canoes, and Jim was just as glad he didn’t have to put up with the fragility of the bottoms of the older ones.
“No fooling,” Jim replied. “These things will take stuff we’d never have dreamed of back in those days. Guess we better get busy.” Jim knew that a lot of scout leaders used whistles to get the attention of the boys, but he never liked them – they especially seemed out of place out here in the woods. But this was a small group, and they ought to not need a whistle. He raised his voice and yelled, “Hey, scouts! Gather ’round.”
It took a few minutes to explain what they were going to do. “We’re not going to be on the river real long today,” Jim told the kids, “but we need to load up like we’re going to be on the water all day, since an upset would be bad news, especially this early in the trip.” It would be, too – sleeping bags would take days to dry, and food could get soaked since there was no real good way to protect it other than not getting things wet in the first place.
Canoe partners had been worked out long before, with a seasoned tripper and a neophyte in each canoe. Predictably there was an inordinate amount of confusion getting everything sorted out and loaded, both Jim and Dale had to intervene in any number of disputes. Finally the canoes were loaded, with sticks in their bottoms to keep the gear out of the drippings that would accumulate from the paddles. There were tarps over everything, and the gear was tied into place. The older scouts knew how to do that, of course; they’d done trips like this before, and the younger kids had at least had things demonstrated to them.
Sliding the loaded canoes down the bank still looked a little chancy to Jim, so to keep a canoe from getting loose and running wild right down the bank and into the river, he arranged a snub line wrapped around a small tree so they could be let down easily. Soon all six canoes were clustered at the bottom of the bank, where there was so little room that some of the canoes were partly in the narrow creek.
Fortunately everyone got loaded safely in the tight spot. Dale and one of the younger boys were in the first canoe, with Jim and a younger kid in the last one; the rest of the scouts were between them.
Stoner Creek proved to be narrow, but passable; Jim knew that in the heat of the summer small streams in this part of the woods could get too shallow to get a canoe down without walking it, and sometimes drier than that. Fortunately there weren’t any real tough spots, and in fifteen minutes or so they’d made it out to the much wider and deeper Spearfish River.
The plan was not to go far this day – after all, they’d spent much of the day sitting on the train, and everybody including the leaders was on the tired side. It had been worked out ahead of time that Dale would look for the first acceptable place to make a camp for the night, and he found a pretty nice one only a mile or so down the river. That was a little surprising, since good camping spots sometimes are hard to come by in the area, as the streams here often ran through swampy areas. This one was not a huge winner; it had a rather poor place to land, and a short but steep climb up a sandy bank. There wasn’t room for all the canoes at the landing, so they had to manhandle them up the path to the overlooking bank.
It wasn’t any too early to stop, either, especially on the first day out. Jim knew that setting up camp and getting dinner under way would be a hassle, especially with the first-timers on the trip, so it was just as well they had plenty of time.
“Hey, Mr. Blanchard,” one of the scouts yelled. “How about if we can go swimming?”
“Not just now,” he replied. “Let’s get the tents up, and find some downed dry dead wood for our cooking fire. Just bring back stuff that’s small enough to break. I’d just as soon we didn’t mess with our hatchets if we don’t have to. Once we get that done, I don’t see any reason why we can’t go swimming.”
Jim didn’t like to give the kids instructions that were too specific if he could help it – after all, one of the things the kids were supposed to learn as scouts was self-reliance without the need for lots of supervision. Several of the kids scattered into the nearby area looking for wood, and that would be a daily thing, since all cooking would be done over open fires. Jim knew scout leaders who took Coleman stoves along on such trips, but he preferred not to – not only did food taste better when cooked over an open fire, he was a little leery of letting kids use the stoves, which were tricky and could be dangerous.
The rest of the kids turned to setting up tents – in this case, old Army shelter halves that had come from a surplus store years before. There were better, larger tents available for scouts, and Jim liked the look of the Explorer tents the Boy Scouts of America had been distributing for the last few years. But there was only so much money to go around, and the decision had been made to put it into new canoes first. New tents could come later.
The prospect of swimming in the river helped to hurry things along. “All right,” he told the kids. “You know the rules, swim by the buddy system, keep an eye on each other. You can have half an hour, and then we’re going to start on dinner.”
Jim got the fire going – it would take a while to burn down to cooking coals – while the kids stripped down to go swimming. Out here in the woods like this there was no harm in letting them go skinny-dipping, and they were used to it – in the winter they went to the YMCA in Rockford about once a month, and the Y insisted on no swimsuits, for whatever reason. Jim really wasn’t in the mood for a swim, so he just went over to the high bank overlooking where the kids were swimming, pulled out his pipe, loaded it up, and lit it with the Zippo lighter he’d carried through the war. Time to sit back in the shade and relax, he thought. He looked forward to these trips about as much as the kids did, after all. Now, this one was under way and it ought to be fun.
He glanced out at the water, and noticed there were only nine kids swimming, along with Dale. Who was missing and why?
He looked around and saw the Rathburn kid sitting in the shade under another tree and watching what was going on, rather than joining in. That seemed a little strange, so Jim got to his feet and walked over to talk to the kid. “Hey, Bob,” he asked when he got close enough that they could talk privately. “Don’t you want to go swimming?”
“Not really, Mr. Blanchard,” the kid said. “I feel a little lousy.”
It wasn’t unusual for a kid to feel a little off on the first days of a trip – especially a first-timer like Rathburn. Homesickness was always an issue for them. “You’ll be all right once we’ve been out for a couple days.”
“I sure hope so, Mr. Blanchard,” the kid said. He coughed a couple times, then went on, “I’ve looked forward to this canoe trip for so long I don’t want to let being sick louse it up.”
That cough sounded like a little more than just homesickness to Blanchard. “Have you been coughing much, Bob?” he asked.
“Just on the train. I think all that coal smoke got to me a little. Maybe I’m coming down with a cold or something.”
Jim put out his hand to feel the kid’s forehead. It seemed warm to him, but not uncomfortably so. Maybe the kid was just overheated from all the activities of the day – or, maybe he was running a little bit of a fever. It was hard to say, but there wasn’t much that could be done out here in the woods except ride it out, at least not today. “Why don’t you go ahead and take a little bit of a swim anyway?” he suggested. “Maybe it’ll cool you off.”