Runner's Moon - Cover

Runner's Moon

©1995, ©2007, ©2010 by Wes Boyd

Chapter 12

The alarm went off all too early; Josh woke up with a headache. He knew he'd better be getting used to short nights, since he'd have several in the next two weeks. The Warsaw Run had always been pretty much a night race; at one time, most of the second half of the race had been in daylight, back when Mark and Mike had taken 20 hours for the round trip, but more and better dogs, better training, more experience and greater competition had shaved many hours off the race. Even with the start time pushed back, only the mandatory four-hour stop in Warsaw kept the winners from getting back before the crack of dawn. No one had broken the 12-hour barrier just yet, but it seemed only a matter of time. There had been proposals to eliminate the mandatory stop, and that would get the time down to about nine hours, with breaks, but 100 miles without a major break would be pushing it for some of the less-seriously trained teams. There had been talk of extending it out to Walsenberg, winding the route around a bit, and making a 200-miler out of it. Josh and Tiffany had even made a demonstration run one weekend the year before, just to prove it could be done, but there wasn't enough enthusiasm for it just yet.

So, it was almost entirely a night race. To top it off, he'd be on the trail most of four or five nights on the Beargrease, depending on how it went, and the Michigan 200 was an all-nighter, too. Given a good sleep-in the morning before, Josh knew he could pull an all-nighter without any problems, but he suspected things would get a little groggy on the Beargrease. That was unexplored territory for him, and he didn't know a great deal about what to expect.

But that was still a few days off. He drug himself out of bed, pulled on some clothes, and went out to do the chores; it wouldn't be long before Tiffany would be over, to take her team to school.

It was still dark when he got outside, although there was a hint of dawn in the east. There was a glowing in the sky to the north; perhaps there was an aurora out there, but it was hard to say. It was clear, but cold, probably below zero, although he didn't bother to check. It wasn't often that you got several nice days in a row in Spearfish Lake in the winter, and that made the weekend not sound too promising.

Inside the barn, he set the water to running, carrying hot water from the trailer. While he waited for it to warm, he measured out dog food into the cement mixer, then went to the refrigerator, got several pounds of still-frozen meat scraps, and began to chop them up with an axe. Chopped up, these went into the mixer, too, along with the warm water; mixing the food with water ensured that the dogs got enough water into their systems, always a problem in cold weather.

The dogs were always happy to see him carrying the five-gallon buckets full of dog food. There were always a few friendly words as he dipped food into each dog's pan. He tried to concentrate on Tiffany's dogs first, because of their regular early morning school run. He had just finished up feeding his own dogs, and was laying out Tiffany's gangline when she showed up.

"The usual suspects, I presume?" he asked Tiffany, still yawning in the early morning cold.

"Pretty much," she said. "I think I got the weekend's lineup figured out while I was laying awake last night, so I'll concentrate on them."

"Who are you going to want?"

"George and Dancer in front, of course. Dasher and Prancer in swing, then Garfield and Snoopy, Comet and Donner, and Mongo and Hemp in wheel."

"Should be a good lineup," Josh observed. It would have been about what he would have taken.

"I'd really rather take Pipeline than Garfield, and have him in wheel instead of Hemp, but that would leave Phil short a dog," she said.

"Yeah, we owe him a couple, for giving us Nimbus and Shack, if nothing else" Josh observed. Nimbus, along with George, had been the parents of his five 'diesel dogs' and Tiffany's three yearling 'funnies dogs'. Shack, again with George, was the mother of Tiffany's 'reindogs'. Both of the Alaskan Iditarod veteran dogs had been the core of the puppy breeding program; Nimbus had produced her last litter, but there were four litters of Shack dogs around the dog lot and in the puppy pen; George hadn't been the father of all of them. "The thought crossed my mind that we could put together a Warsaw team for him easier than a Pound Puppies team," he added. I don't think he'd win anything with it, but he might get in the top ten. I kept thinking last night that I'd like to have Scooter, too. Under the circumstances, it wouldn't hurt to have all the dogs go that distance."

"See if you can get him out here for another night run tonight," she suggested,. "Maybe we could bounce it off of him. We need to concentrate on night training more. As long as he's here, we can get everybody out for thirty miles or so after dark every evening for the rest of the week, take Friday off, and be ready to rumble on Saturday."

"Sounds good to me," Josh agreed. "I'll get everybody else out for ten or fifteen this morning, just to blow the cobwebs out, then we can get serious this evening. Say, get started around six."

"Fine with me," Tiffany said. "We'd better get started, or I'll be late."

They turned to hooking up the dogs, and once again, Josh's mind turned to a problem he'd promised himself he wouldn't think about until the racing season was over with.

Tiffany wanted to run the Iditarod badly, when she was eligible, in two years, and Josh was considering it strongly. Any Iditarod run in two years would have to pretty much involve the dogs they already had, except for four or five that wouldn't be up to it in two years, and some of the twenty yearlings and puppies that were out in the puppy pens. They needed, at a minimum, forty active racing dogs between them to come up with 32 needed to start the race, since some dogs would wind up being nonstarters, for whatever reason. Even that didn't cut them a lot of slack; the pros running the Iditarod usually had twice the dogs to come up with one good team, much less two. Assuming they got ten or twelve really good dogs out of the yearlings and puppies, that would be enough for a rookie run at the race, and that was about as big a kennel as they could handle, anyway. If they didn't get that many good dogs out of the puppies, they'd have to buy or borrow developed dogs to fill out the teams. That really wouldn't be that big a problem; Josh could think of several in the Spearfish Lake area that ought to be capable of going to Nome, given proper training, and some of them were Mark's or Mike's.

But, there'd have to be a crop of puppies coming along every year as replacements for older dogs, somewhere around eight to ten a year in hopes of coming up with six or seven good replacements annually. Raising and training puppies was one of the best parts of their hobby, but they'd let themselves get into a problem: there was too much of George out there. He'd fathered nearly half the dogs in the kennel, and they were going to have to be careful about which dogs they bred in the future, and George couldn't really be a part of future breeding plans, for the same reason.

It seemed obvious that they'd have to breed 'George dogs' with Georgeless dogs', but which with which, for the litter or two they needed, was going to be a problem. There were about five or six candidates out there among the George dogs, but not as many, among the non-George dogs: Scooter, Pipeline, a couple of others, and maybe Switchstand, if they decided they were going to concentrate more on sprint racing after the Iditarod, the main reason that Josh had held onto Switchstand, anyway. Josh and Tiffany had agreed to wait until the season was over with, to see how the candidates ran, and if that would help them with a decision, but it was something to be constantly considering.

It would be nice in the next couple years to pick up another one or two more really good Alaskan dogs, because things were going to get real complicated in the next generation, otherwise. Nine of the puppies coming along were Scooter and Shack dogs, and maybe they could try to get another litter out of Shack, by some other Georgeless dog, just to spread things out, but there was a lot of Shack out there already, too. He and Tiffany had spent many evenings debating, arguing, picking at the problem, and they were no closer to resolution than they'd ever been.

Thinking about the breeding problem now was the last thing on Josh's mind, and he knew he'd have to get his mind off of it, somehow. Fortunately, there was an easy answer. Once he'd gotten Tiffany on her way, he finished picking up, went inside for a quick shave, then went out, got in his pickup truck with the dog box on the back, and headed for the Spearfish Lake Cafe. It'd been days since he'd had a breakfast more serious than corn flakes; a real breakfast and the conversation that went with it would be nice. He timed it just about right; he got to the overpass just as Tiffany was coming up the rail grade, and he slowed down to see her run the team overhead. They were really whistling, too, moving right along.

Josh wasn't a regular at the Cafe, but there was an empty seat at the big table, so he sat there, anyway. Mark and Mike were there, along with Bud Ellsberg, his boss, and a few others he knew.

"Tiffany kept you out late again last night, huh?" Mike asked.

"Yeah," Josh said. "We had a real good run, though. Ran most of the Pound Puppies route. The trail is pretty good, and the grade was just about perfect."

"Your dad ran down to Kremmling yesterday," Bud said. "We're going to have to go to Warsaw, then Kremmling again Friday, though. Even if we get more snow, that should leave things in pretty good shape. I'm figuring on going with your dad Friday, to get the trestle bypass put in. We're going to be trying something different. We're gonna take your dad's snowmobile and the Burro. We'll set the snowmobile off with the Burro, and we should be able to break the trail down the valley in just a few minutes."

"Not a bad idea," Josh said. Taking the Burro -- the construction crane -- would mean that they wouldn't even have to wrestle with the heavy snowmobile. Though running the grade was relatively boring, because it was so easy, the railroad engines did a great job of trailbreaking. "Anything going to be out there today?"he asked.

"Should be quiet," Bud said. "Have to do a Camden run tomorrow, to get ready to go to Warsaw Friday, though."

"Guess I'll run a bit of the grade today myself," Josh said.

"Maybe I'll see you," Mike said. "I'm going to try and sneak out this afternoon and get a few miles on."

"Got your team figured out for this weekend yet?" Mark asked.

"Pretty well," Josh admitted. "Couple of spots I haven't figured out, yet."

"How about the Beargrease?" Mike asked.

"I know what dogs I'd like to run," Josh said. "But I don't want to make a final decision until we see what happens this weekend."

"Wish I could go with you," Mike said. "But, I don't dare leave town that long until I can get another reporter up and running." Mike usually only had one general assignment and sports reporter on the Record-Herald staff. He'd lost his last one at the first of the year, and now was having to fill in himself. It had put a real crimp in his training for the Pound Puppies; Josh and Tiffany and Mark had helped where they could, but he was still going to have his hands full to run the one-day race. "Maybe next year."

"You still want to leave first thing Thursday morning?" Mark asked. Mark and Tiffany were going to be his dog handlers and pit crew for the Beargrease -- Mark, because he could get free, and Tiffany, for the sake of the experience.

"Sounds reasonable," Josh said. "We could make it to Duluth in a long day, but that gives me the chance to stop a couple of times a day to let the dogs stretch their legs, and maybe get ten or fifteen miles on them each day on the way up, and still make the musher's meeting on Friday."

"Sure you don't want to take an extra day? We could scout the countryside out a bit."

"Love to," Josh said. "I don't know if Tiffany can afford an extra day off school, though. She's losing better than a week, as it is."

"Go ahead and take it," Mike said. "They've only got a half a day on Wednesday, anyway."

"Well, let me think for a second," Josh said. He'd planned on giving the dogs the day off on Monday, then thirty-milers or so on Tuesday and Wednesday, to keep them near peak, and make the final decision on which dogs to take. He planned on taking fifteen or sixteen dogs, twelve to start with, and three or four for spares, in case one or more dogs didn't seem like they wanted to start. This would cut short the local training by a day ... but, no, it wouldn't have to. He could still run thirty miles early on Wednesday, then load up the truck and go. He made his decision. "I can pretty well load the truck on Tuesday, and then, I can run the dogs for a couple hours early on Wednesday, then we can load up and go. If Tiffany's only got half a day, we can leave right from the school about 11, and everything should come out about right."

"That'll work," Mark agreed. "Everything should run all right for a few days. Nothing Harvey can't handle, anyway."

"You want us to call you if the system goes down?" Mike asked.

"Naw, if Harvey can't fix it, there's probably not much I can do at a distance," Mark said. "Spearfish Lake will just have to get along without Internet for a while."

Once upon a time, Mark had worked for the Spearfish Lake Telephone Company, and about twelve years before, he'd started getting interested in computers. Since the mid-80's, he'd been Spearfish Lake's leading computer dealer and repairman, at first only on a part-time basis. Then, Spearfish Lake Telephone had been bought out by Americom, who promptly transferred him to a place down south of Camden. Mark stayed in a motel there for a couple of weeks, took six weeks accumulated vacation -- just enough to get him over twenty years service, and get his retirement vested -- then turned in his retirement papers. In order to build up his computer business, he'd become Spearfish Lake's first, and only, Internet Service Provider, and dealt a little in phone systems, besides. He'd had '' operational just less than a year, but growth was rapid. To help out, he'd hired an absolute computer genius, Harvey, who was still in eleventh grade at Spearfish Lake High School, but who was sharper on some stuff than he was. He wasn't sure whether Harvey's main interest was his pay -- which was very good -- or his direct access to a T-1 connection. Mark's main worry was that Harvey wouldn't want to work for him after he graduated from high school.

"You know," Bud commented wryly, "There was a time we used to sit around this table and talk football."

"Couldn't prove it by me," Josh said. He'd been eating breakfast on occasion around this table ever since he'd started working for Bud -- in the eleventh grade himself, then -- and he'd become an an all-region running back, as Bud had been a quarter century before. Even in those days, though, they hadn't talked football, at least very much: it ran more to railroading, and computers, and dogs, and not necessarily in that order.

"There really was a time," Bud said, then changed the subject: "Any chance you could drop by for an hour or two today? The traction controller's sticking on 602 again."

"Can't be the module," Josh said. "I changed it." Even computers were sneaking into railroad engines; Bud had sent Josh to a school down in Illinois to learn how to work on them, and the traction controller was among the things on the C&SL's two SD-38s that even Ed Sloat, Bud's long-time diesel maintainer, didn't know how to fix. As computers went, it was pretty primitive, but it was a key to efficient operation of the 2500-hp unit. The SD-38s had more than twice the capacity of the older, smaller GP-7s and GP-9s, especially in pulling the long rock trains in the summer months that made up the majority of the C&SL's business.

"Gotta be in the sensor," Bud commented.

"Changed that, too," Josh said. "I think it's just a crummy connection, somewhere."

"Well, if you can find the time, come in and play with it for a while," Bud said. "If you can get it working, fine. If not, we'll piddle along until after you're done with the 200, but we want to have it working right before the pits open."

"I'll find the time," Josh said. Bud had been so good about being flexible to let him train and run the dogs, it was the least he could do, but a couple hours could easily turn into three or four, just at the peak of the training schedule. "Probably this afternoon."

It was at least theoretically possible to get in two short runs, work on the SD-38, and run a few errands, like to the grocery store, but it was going to be hectic, Josh knew as he drove back out to the dog lot. Well, there was one thing he could do to ease matters.

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