Busted Axle Road
Chapter 119: February 1988

Copyright© 1993, 2001, 2010

The sun was low on the horizon, and would be setting soon. It was cold out on the ice of Spearfish Lake, a quarter mile out from the shoreline, off of the city beach; a stiff wind was blowing, but at least it was clear. That wasn't entirely a blessing; while it would mean that they'd have a moon after a while, the clear, windy night would be cold, and there were a lot of places where the railroad line ran through open country, where the wind could get at them.

Mark felt butterflies in his stomach as he looked down the line of dogs, two teams standing side by side, the sleds tied to pickup trucks. Ahead of the dogs stretched two rows of snow fencing, side by side, and there was a crowd standing behind the fence, looking on.

This was going to be a long night, and they'd never run the dogs this far, before. They had made the run down the railroad line from Warsaw the previous weekend without any real difficulties, but that had been the longest they'd ever run the dogs at one time, and tonight and tomorrow, they'd have to go more than twice as far. He didn't doubt that the dogs could make it, but it was still a big step into the unknown.

Mike turned to him. "What do you think about the weather?" he asked.

"Could be better," Mark shrugged. "Better than last weekend, a little, I think. There's no reason not to do this."

"That's what I thought you'd say," Mike said. "You feel any better?"

"I'm O.K.," Mark said. "Just nerves and excitement, I guess. I'll feel better when we get out on the trail."

"Yeah, I've got the same thing," Mike said. "Looks like we're going to have just enough light to make it to the railroad before we lose the light entirely."

"That's how we planned it," Mark agreed.

A public address system boomed with Ryan Clark's voice. "Three minutes to the start of the Little Iditarod dog sled race to Warsaw and back. First dog's nose over the finish line tomorrow afternoon wins the race. Be here for the finish!"

Kirsten and Tiffany and Henry clustered around Mike, giving him a big hug. "Good luck, and be careful," Kirsten said. "Don't do anything crazy."

"I won't," Mike promised.

"Take good care of the dogs," Tiffany said.

"I will," Mike agreed. He looked over at Mark, who had Jackie's arms around him. "We'll take it easy. Kirsten, I'll see you up at the 919 crossing when we stop."

"Two minutes to the start," Clark's voice boomed. "Will the mushers please take their positions."

Mike and Mark broke away from their families, and walked to the center of the ice between the two dog sleds, stuck out their hands, and shook them. "Once we get out of sight of the crowd, I'll hold up for you," Mike said.

"If you're leading," Mark smiled.

"One minute," the loudspeaker boomed.

Mark and Mike went over to their sleds, untied the tielines to the trucks, and stepped down hard on the sled brakes. There was nothing more to do but to go ahead and do it.

"Gravediggers, up," Mark said, fairly quietly, not wanting the dogs to bolt.

"Beatle Hounds, up," Mike ordered in the same tone.

"Ten seconds," the speaker boomed. Five ... four ... three ... two ... one ... GO!"

A starter's pistol cracked, and both Mike and Mark yelled "HIKE! HIKE! HIKE! HIKE! HIKE! to their teams.

A cheer arose that they could barely hear through their heavy parkas as the dogs took off with a wild acceleration. They hadn't been driven down, but brought down in the dog box, just so their starting mad rush would look better for the crowd, and they came through with one of the wildest rushes that Mike and Mark had experienced. The crowd got to them, too, the cheers leading them on, with Mike and Mark still roaring, "HIKE! HIKE! HIKE! GO! HIKE!

The teams were still neck and neck as they came to the end of the double row of snow fencing, the roar of the crowd starting to fall behind them now. The mad rush continued; the dogs were as up as Mark and Mike had ever seen them. After a quarter mile or so, both could begin to perceive that Ringo was starting to pull ahead of Cumulus, ever so slightly.

It was a couple of miles, and they were nearing the turn off of the lake before the opening rush began to die out, and the teams began to slow just a little. By that time, Mike had just about pulled even with Cumulus. He turned to yell back at Mark, "I'll take point for a while."

"All right," Mark yelled back. "You won the drag race."

They turned off on the beach road that Tiffany had followed a month before, and ran up it a ways, to where the Camden and Spearfish Lake Railroad crossed the road. "Gee! Gee!" Mike yelled, and the Beatle Hounds turned onto the railroad tracks, with Cumulus and the Gravediggers right behind.

Once they got settled down on the tracks, Mike let his team slow to a steady trail trot, perhaps eight or ten miles an hour, half the speed or less than they'd roared across the lake. The rail line was easy going, as they'd expected; it was snowcovered, and only the two steel rails poked through the snow, from when Mark's father-in-law had plowed it out the day before.

It was getting dark, now, really dark; the moon wouldn't rise for a couple of hours, yet. Mike reached up to turn on the battery-powered headlamp he wore strapped to his head, just to put a little light on the scene, but mostly he was letting Ringo find the way, not that there was much chance that he'd get lost, since snow was piled high on either side of the tracks. Mark wore a headlamp too, but didn't have it turned on, to save the batteries.

For a moment, Mike looked back, to see that Mark was about twenty or thirty yards behind. The eyes of the five dogs glowed in the flash of the headlamp, and their breaths smoked in the cold as they rushed down the black alleyway between the two lines of trees.

They ran like that for an hour or more, quietly running through the darkened woods, with only the single headlamp to light the way. It was a quiet, mystical ride, with only the swoosh of the sled runners underneath them, and an occasional jingle of a harness strap striking a metal ring.

It seemed very quickly that they came up on the County Road 919 crossing. Mark's pickup truck and Kirsten's car waited there, along with Josh and Kirsten and Tiffany and Henry and Jackie. It was a little earlier than they'd really wanted to stop, but they had to take advantage of the stopping places where they could get them. A "Whoa!" and a touch of the sled brakes brought the teams to a stop, and tielines were quickly thrown onto the vehicles. Josh and Jackie busied themselves with setting warm water from thermoses out for the dogs, who lapped away at it, while Mike and Mark went down the line of them, with a quick pet and a snack for each one.

"How'd it go?" Josh asked, pouring coffee from another thermos.

"Pretty good," Mike replied. "We settled who's got the faster sprinters, anyway."

"Just by a hair," Mark said, taking a cup of coffee. The first sip felt good going down, after the chill of the ride, but when it hit his stomach, it didn't feel quite as good. He took another sip, then decided he didn't want any more, and threw the rest out into the snow.

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