Runner's Moon - Cover

Runner's Moon

©1995, ©2007, ©2010 by Wes Boyd

Chapter 9

It was always hard getting up before dawn in the dead of winter to feed the dogs, but it had to be done. Josh had known this was going to happen, and had accepted it, but was still young enough to enjoy sleeping in -- so it took some doing to get heavy clothes on and head out to the barn in the cold, starry, half-lit predawn of what promised to be a pretty good day.

He'd done this often enough that his mind was only partly on what he was doing, while trying to pick away at a couple of other problems that had been nagging him for weeks, and now it was getting to be time to be solving them. While he went through the motions of getting warm water running from the trailer, shoveling dog food and meat scraps into the old cement mixer, and other routine chores, he chewed away at it. Even the dogs were happy to see him, awake and barking in the snowy air as he hauled buckets of food and warm water out to feed them. With 32 racing sled dogs to feed -- some of them Tiffany's -- plus more pups and old dogs past racing, taking time to interact with each one, it was not a quick chore, but his mind turned over possibilities.

Dog numbers were actually on the low side right now; Josh and Tiffany had sold some dogs and traded a few to fill out some other racing teams. However, it had reduced the number of raceable dogs to the point where some dogs were going to have to do both the Warsaw Run next weekend and the Beargrease the weekend after that. That still left Josh with a leader problem, so this morning Josh was struggling with the problems of which dogs to run in which race, which leaders to run, and so on. It was a complicated problem, one that he'd chipped away on all winter and wouldn't be finally settled until he started the Beargrease.

For example, had a good command leader in Crosstie, but Crosstie was lazy, and getting old. While she could be urged to a good pace, she wouldn't keep it unless urged, and she slowed down the other dogs. Worse, she slowed them down when she was running in team, as well. Crosstie was a pound puppy, not raised as a racing dog, and was good for team training, but she really wasn't a racing dog any more. The thought saddened Josh a little; Crosstie had taught him more about racing sled dogs than he'd learned anywhere else.

Josh also had a pretty good command leader in Switchstand -- but Switchstand, plain and simple, was a sprint leader, and could go like the wind on a well-groomed trail but pooped out after ten miles or so, and wasn't very good at following rough trails. They'd learned that the hard way, and rarely pushed him much beyond that, until this year. Having to do faster training at longer distances, and with Crosstie fading, this winter they'd run him with the endurance team more, but a little gingerly.

Josh did have a great trail leader in Alco. Alco, out of the first George and Nimbus litter, had won the Warsaw Run for him as a yearling the year before, when he'd become pissed off with Crosstie's lethargic pace on the first half of the race, and dropped her at Warsaw, well off the lead pace, determining to try every dog on the way back to at least come up with enough leader to make it back. It had been Alco's turn when the big storm blew up; teams without good storm leaders scratched, holed up, lost the trail, or struggled, while Alco kept chuffing away, never losing the trail. They were well in the lead by the time they'd made it back to Spearfish Lake, but Josh had to take Alco by a neckline to lead him through the last three hundred yards, since he couldn't take commands worth beans.

In spite of a lot of work over the summer, Alco wasn't what you'd call a command leader even yet, although he now would take gee-haw commands a little. At least there wouldn't be this problem with the Beargrease, where Josh would be able to have Tiffany's great command leader, George, in double lead with Alco, but Tiffany would have George in the lead in the Warsaw Run.

Josh was just finishing up the feeding when Tiffany showed up, from her home a quarter mile down the road, bringing George with her; the six-year-old leader slept on her bed every night. Now with just enough light to see, she broke out a sled, and laid out a gangline, and began harnessing dogs to take to school, the regular morning practice for years. It bought her a little more time for training. "Same ones as yesterday?" Josh asked.

"No," she said. "I'll take Garfield in place of Comet, and Snoopy in place of Donner."

With over a hundred dogs passing through their hands in the past five years, even finding names for them had been a struggle. In the past several years, Tiffany had brought Santa Claus into town in the Christmas parade, and two years ago, when Shack had her first litter of nine pups, she'd named them after Santa's reindeer, in hopes of being able to run the training sled down Main Street yelling, "On Dasher! On Dancer!," and so forth. It hadn't worked out; Cupid had gotten loose and been hit by a car, and Rudolph and Blitzen hadn't acted like runners, so had been sold with a recreation team.

"George in the lead, of course?"

"Yeah, but let's put Dancer alongside in a double lead again."

It took a while, but it was something they practiced every morning. Working under the name of Run-8 Kennels -- the name derived not from the team sizes, but from the wide-open throttle setting on a diesel railroad engine -- Josh and Tiffany had just about the fastest speed and endurance dogs in the region, even though it was still a little on the small-potatoes side in a small-potatoes sport.

By the time he'd got Tiffany off to school, Josh was getting cold. He knew he ought to dress warmer for the morning chores, but somehow never did. The coffee he'd put on before he came out to feed the dogs would taste good, he knew.

He was no more than inside the mobile home when the phone went off -- a little strange, since he hardly ever got phone calls, except from Tiffany, and she had to be halfway to school by now. It proved to be from Jackie. "You doing anything this morning?" she asked.

"Just training runs," he admitted. Occasionally, he was called on to help Jackie move or set up a sign.

"Would you mind taking a run out to Norm Niven's camp?" Jackie asked. "I've got someone here that needs to go out there, and I was going to take her, but now I've got to get this sign done for Jerusalem Paper."

Josh was leery. Norm Niven was the next thing to a hermit; over a period of several years, they'd gradually become aware of him living in an old hunting cabin on the far side of Turtle Hill when they'd made training runs out that way. Josh and Tiffany had helped him get started with a small team of castoff dogs, just so he could get into town once in a while. "He's not real crazy about people just dropping in on him," Josh reminded his sister.

"Shouldn't matter," Jackie said. "We had this set up last week, then the weather put us off."

"Are they going to mind a long ride?" Josh asked. "It's going to take about the same time going from here as it would to load up the dog box, run the truck out there, then set up on 919 somewhere."

Josh could hear Jackie explain the problem to someone in the background, then come back a few minutes later. "Shouldn't be a problem," she said. "Look, I've got to get over to Warsaw to see about this sign. I'll drop her off at your place, and you can leave her here on the way back."

"Give me a few minutes to get my act together," Josh asked.

He hung up the phone and poured himself a cup of coffee. He set it out to cool, while he went to the bedroom to layer up. It was cold out, and would probably stay cold; it would be a couple of hours, minimum, to get to Norm's cabin from here. He drained the cup once he'd gotten dressed more warmly, then put the rest of the pot into a thermos; it would taste good out on the trail, and maybe the rider would like some.

He was just heading out the door when Jackie drove in the driveway, a passenger with her. Josh went out to meet them as they got out of the pickup; he was a little surprised to see the passenger using aluminum crutches, a little uncertianly on the rough-packed snow of the driveway. Josh could see that she was a woman; a wisp of blonde hair stuck out from under her heavy hat; she was shorter than Jackie, which wasn't suprising, as Jackie stood over six feet tall. There wasn't much else Josh could tell about her, except that she looked to be dressed warm enough, in a snowmobile suit and shoepacs.

Jackie made the introductions. "This is Judy Sorensen," she explained. "She's a neighbor of some old friends of ours."

"How long do you want to be out at Norm's?" Josh asked.

"Not long," she said. "A couple of hours, maybe."

"I'll help you get set up," Jackie offered. "Sorry to have to drop this on you."

"Oh, no problem," Josh said. "A run to Norm's is about the right length for a training trip today, anyway."

"Which dogs do you want to use?"

"I hadn't thought about it," Josh said, glancing at Judy's crutches. She probably wouldn't want to have to deal with the bouncing and jouncing of racing speeds, so this was a good chance to do some command training, and give an easy workout to some of the older dogs. "Let's go with Crosstie in the lead," Josh said. "Let's put Geep in double lead with her. A couple times here lately, he's acted like he's wanted to lead a little." He reeled off a list of eight more dogs. He was tempted to throw Alco in there, but decided against it; when he got back, he could put Alco in double lead with Switchstand, and do some faster training with the dogs left behind now.

Josh got out a sled, laid out the gangline, and he and Jackie started hooking up dogs. Hooking up the team went quickly; in spite of her crutches, Judy soon got the idea, and helped them out where she could. Soon, they were ready to go; there were ten excited dogs out there that wanted to run, jumping in their lines, sometimes even doing a "four-off-the-floor"; only a tieline to a light pole was keeping them from running. Josh got a foam pad and a heavy blanket from the barn, the first for Judy to sit on, the second to wrap around her if she got cold, and set a bag of emergency gear up near the front of the sled. "I'm going to just have you sit in here," Josh said. "You'll want to hang on pretty good, especially the first couple of miles."

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