Runner's Moon - Cover

Runner's Moon

©1995, ©2007, ©2010 by Wes Boyd

Chapter 10

Splitting wood was always a chore, and there was always wood to split, even in the summer, since the old cookstove in the cabin burned wood. But, it was an enjoyable chore, on a day like today, with it reasonably warm, and the sun shining, so he didn't mind too much. He'd spent a lot of time over the summer and fall cutting older, dying trees well away from the old deer camp, cutting them up with a chainsaw, and hauling them to the cabin with the old tractor he'd acquired soon after he'd realized that he didn't want to cut trees near the cabin. What made the chore especially enjoyable was that it gave him some exercise; it was all too easy to curl up in the cabin with the dogs for days on end, reading classics, tending the fire, or whittling little toys.

The dogs gave him all the company he usually wanted. He'd never minded being alone, but only in the last few years had he discovered that he actually preferred it. There was always something interesting happening in the woods, and now he had the time to understand and appreciate it. Though in the last few years before he'd come here, he'd almost half-forgotten that he even owned it, he'd been coming here since he was a boy, and he'd learned that he'd never really appreciated what there was to learn about the woods, the stars, the birds, the plants. Now, there was time to learn and appreciate those things that he'd never had time for, and each day was a new day, with the prospect of something interesting to watch, study, or learn. It was never-ending, and it was wonderful.

The dogs were outside with him, and even they seemed to appreciate the exercise and being outside on a nice day. They didn't have much husky in them, and didn't stray far from the cabin; just nosed around in the snow outside, taking their time and enjoying themselves. He thought later that he might hook up the sled and take them for a short trip, just enough to limber up a bit. With only three older dogs, they wouldn't go far, but it was too nice a day to pass up.

Still, he wasn't as young as he once was, and manhandling the maul was tiring. He'd set it down, and sat down on the piece of log he'd used as a block for a breather, when he noticed Patches perk her ears up, as if she'd heard something. Soon, Axle and Dugan stopped their sniffing around, and turned their heads down the two-rut that led to the cabin. A deer, probably, floundering around in the deep snow. It wasn't a good idea to let the dogs chase deer in this kind of snow, he thought, and one by one, he called the dogs, then took them over to the cabin and fastened them on chains.

The dogs were still intently listening; now and then, one or another would let out a little yip. Now, he heard it too, a voice off in the distance, too far to make out what they were saying, but it sounded a lot like dog-team commands. He smiled; Josh or Tiffany, probably, out training their dogs again. He was glad he'd tied the dogs up before they got closer; loose dogs caused problems with dog teams, tangling lines and raising hell, and he wouldn't want to make the kids have to put up with the problems. Tiffany sort of put him in mind of what his daughter might have been like at that age, but it was probably Josh; it usually was, since Tiffany spent most of her days in school. He liked it when they dropped by; they never stayed long, usually not much longer than for a cup of coffee, but it was nice to talk to a human once in a while. Even though he got out once a month or so in the winter, and more in the summer, and even occasionally took his old car and drove clear down to see his daughter and grandkids, he was always grateful for the peace when he got back to the cabin.

After a few minutes, he could definitely tell that it was dog team commands he was hearing, and now, it was close enough that he could tell it was Josh. Well, there was coffee on the stove, already; still, while he was waiting, he might as well get some work done. He stood up, picked up the maul, and started in on the firewood again. It might be a while before he got here; probably the road in didn't have trail broken any closer than the dogsled track up on the North Country Trail, and it would be slow going for the dogs. But, the broken trail Josh would leave would make it a little easier to take the dogs out this afternoon.

He was still splitting firewood when his own dogs started in with some serious barking, welcoming the newcomers. He looked up, and could see the team come round the bend, taking it slow in the deep snow along the two-rut, with Josh behind, pushing, trying to help the dogs out. Josh was a good kid, a hard worker, really cared about his dogs. The team was a lot closer before he could see that there was someone in the sled basket. Kirsten, maybe; Tiffany's mom. She occasionally went along for a ride in a dog sled on a training trip on a nice day, though it was strange to see her this far out. He gave Josh a big wave, all of a sudden realizing that it would be nice to see someone for a change. Josh and whoever it was in the sled basket waved back. In another moment, Josh whoa'd the team to a stop, then stepped off the runners with a big snow hook in his hand. Dog team first, of course; Josh set the snow hook in the deep snow, then took a tieline and waddled forward in the snow, to set it to keep the team stretched out; he went out to help.

While Josh was dealing with the team, the passenger in the sled basket hoisted themselves up on the sled rails, then awkwardly swung over the side of the sled, but he didn't really pay attention until they bent over and picked up a pair of aluminum crutches.

It couldn't be...

The passenger peeled back her hat, and he could see that it could too be. "Judy, honey, what are you doing here?"

"I came to see you, daddy."

"Well," he smiled, "This is a big surprise."

"You didn't get my letter?"

"When did you mail it?"

"A couple weeks ago."

"Naw, I haven't been to town in a month. Probably still sitting down at the post office. Ken didn't come with you?"

"Someone had to do chores and watch the kids. Lydia really can't do both."

"Sorry to hear it," Norm said. "Why don't you come inside? I've got some coffee on. You too, Josh."

"In a while," Josh said. "I gotta give these dogs a paw check, first."

Judy struggled a little in the deep snow next to the sled; deep snow was something she'd always had trouble with, but it was only a couple of steps over to where Norm had beaten out something of a path, hauling wood into the cabin. It was easier going there, but still, she had to watch where and how she put her feet. Not for the first time, Norm wondered how she managed it at all, let alone that she managed it as well as she did. Still, he knew better than to offer her a hand; that stubborn streak of hers had been her salvation, and he knew it. He'd been there to watch.

Norm opened the door for his daughter and let her inside. "Sorry the place is such a mess, but I wasn't expecting company," he said.

Judy looked around. There were two or three dirty dishes on the sideboard, and a book lay face down on the arm of a tattered easy chair to mark the place. She knew her father well enough that he'd categorize that as a mess. Judy was a fairly neat and organized person, but after eight years with Ken, and three kids, her definition of a mess was a lot less precise than her father's. "It's all right, Daddy," she said, unzipping her snowmobile suit.

"Did it get cold out there on the sled with Josh?"

"Not bad, just stiff from sitting," she said, letting the snowmobile suit slide down her legs, then stepping out of it. "I've gotten colder on the loader, feeding the steers."

She started to peel out of another layer of clothes, as Norm went to get the coffeepot from the back of the stove. He was glad to see that his daughter knew the secret to staying warm in cold weather -- lots of layers. But it was warm in the cabin, and she'd want to get rid of a lot of them. "How's Ken, and the kids?"

"Ken's fine, always the same old Ken. It was the luckiest day of my life when Lori set him up with me. The kids are getting bigger. Phil's in first grade; we could have started Chet in kindergarten this fall, but he's probably a little young yet. Tom has discovered Sesame Street, and we're all grateful. Sometimes it'll keep him occupied for as much as half an hour."

"So what brings you up here?" he asked again, gently.

"Mostly, I just wanted to see you," she said. "I worry about you a lot, living alone up here like this."

"I'm fine," he said. "And, I don't mind the living alone. It's what I want."

"I know that," she said. "But, it doesn't keep me from worrying about you. I think Lydia being sick off and on is what got me worried. At least, if she gets sick, we're right across the road. But you..."

"Have to get along by myself," he finished the sentence for her. "There's not that much to worry about. I can take care of myself. Look, I know I can't live out here forever, but as long as I'm young enough to take care of myself, I want to. When the time comes that I can't, I'll move into town, or back to Willow Lake, or something."

"I knew you'd say that," Judy said. "You've said it before. It'd still be nice to see you a little more often, and the boys would like to see you more often, too."

The door opened, and Josh came in, still dressed for the trail. "You like a cup of coffee, Josh?" Norm asked.

"Sure thing," the young man said. "By the way, you've got a big-ass deadfall across the two-rut, out by the trail."

"Knew about it," Norm said, going for the coffee pot. "Figured I might as well let it lay till I have to drive out. Might keep a few snow machines out."

"I can appreciate it myself," Josh said, starting to peel off his parka. "I'm not too crazy about iron dogs, either."

"You about set to go racing? Warsaw Run's pretty soon, isn't it?"

"Been doing sprints about every other weekend since deer season ended," Josh replied. The Warsaw Run's next weekend, then I'm going to head up to Minnesota as soon as it's over, and run the John Beargrease. That's a five hundred miler. Then, a couple weeks after that, the Michigan 200."

"Tough race schedule you got there," Norm said, handing him the coffee.

"Well, I need to get some experience at the longer distances. So does Tiffany; she wants to run the Iditarod in two years, and I might just take a shot at it myself."

"The Iditarod? You want to play with the big boys, huh?"

"Probably get my butt shot off in the process, but I think it's one of those things I ought to do at least once."

"What's this Iditarod?" Judy asked.

Norm smiled. "The Iditarod is up in Alaska, and it's the biggest dogsled race there is. A thousand forty-nine miles, Anchorage to Nome."

Judy shook her head. "That's some race."

"It helps to be a little crazy," Josh admitted. "Tiffany fits the description. She's the one that's really obsessed about it." He changed the subject. "Norm, look, I hope it's OK that I brought Judy out here."

"No problem," Norm said. "I'm not a hermit. I admit, I guess I act like one sometimes, but feel free to bring Judy out any time she wants to come. Not seeing her enough is the one downside to my living out here."

"Well, so long as it's all right," Josh said. "Look, I can't hang around here all day, and I'm sure the two of you would like to spend some time together. What do you say if I take the team back, and come back with the other half of the team later? Say, about three hours, maybe a little more? That'd give you some time to talk."

"I have to get back tonight, Daddy," Judy chimed in.

"Fine with me," Norm said.

"Anything I can bring you?"

"Naw, I've got to make it into town in the next few days. Thought I might come in over the weekend and see a little of the race."

"Should be a good one," Josh said, draining his coffee. "I can always use an extra handler at the start, so if you're there, don't be shy. I'll get on the move, then."

"I'll come out and help you get started," Norm offered.

"No need," Josh said. "See you later." He headed for the door.

"Darn good kid," Norm said after Josh left. "He and Tiffany are both darn good kids. They got me set up with my dogs, and she taught me what I know about running them. She was just a little snip of a thing at the time, still in junior high, but she sure knows how to work with those dogs."

"Never met her," Judy said. "His girl friend?"

"Not really his girl friend, they're just friends, at least most of the time," Norm explained. "That is, until they get in a race, and then you'd think they were going to shoot each other. Soon as it's over with, they're back to best buddies. She's still a little young to be his girlfriend, but I'm not taking bets about a few years from now. The thing I like about them both is that they're never satisfied with good enough, at least as far as the dogs are concerned. The two of them are probably the best dogsled racers in the state, and they're always looking for ways to improve. They could win a ten mile race by five miles, and still be looking for mistakes they can correct and things they can do better."

The trip back home was a lot easier than the trip out to Norms had been, if only because the sled was lighter, and the trail was now broken. Josh watched the dogs work, and decided he liked the way Geep worked. Out of the same litter of five as Alco, he'd not seen much leadership potential in Geep until recently, and hadn't worked with the dog like he had with Alco. Somehow or other, in the next few days, he'd have to get Geep out in single lead with a small, controllable team, and see if he really was seeing what he was thinking he was seeing. If Geep could take commands, even a little, with Alco alongside it might be all the leader he'd need for the Warsaw run, and the Michigan 200, still a month off. That started him thinking about which dogs to use in which races, again.

The big problem was that the Warsaw Run was next weekend, and they'd no sooner be done with that then they'd have to be heading for the Beargrease, without much chance for rest or reorganization. The Warsaw Run was only a hundred miles, but he stood a good chance to win it -- he'd done it the previous year -- or at least finish in the money. The John Beargrease was a much bigger deal, with bigger purses; while he had a pretty good team, even finishing in the money would not be easy -- but the Beargrease was big time, not a local thing, and would be the longest race he'd run. So, the problem: put a maximum effort into the Warsaw Run, with the relatively sure money, or put his best effort into the Beargrease, with greater prestige and the chance of running with some really topnotch teams, but probably take it on the chin financially?

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