Runner's Moon - Cover

Runner's Moon

©1995, ©2007, ©2010 by Wes Boyd

Chapter 2

Walt had been rather cryptic in his comment about Josh's mother; he couldn't have said much more, what with Chris and Danny sitting there. But, Josh pretty well knew what he was talking about, and he had plenty of time to think about it as he and Danny ran K-Pit down to Camden. It wasn't anything new, after all.

Simply put, Sarah Archer didn't want her son to be a railroader. She wanted him to go to college, and make something of himself. He and Walt had been able to sell her on the notion that the railroading was only going to be temporary, so he could build up savings to go to college, and he'd spent very little of what he'd made since he'd started on the C&SL almost four years ago. He had bought a newer, but still used, pickup truck to replace his aging Chevette he'd driven around high school, and spent some money on the dogs, but really, they weren't all that expensive. He had a pretty damn good bank account, and by the time this summer was over with, he really would have enough money to start college.

But why?

Sarah had been proud of John, her older son. He'd gone to college, made something of himself, and was a junior CPA, working down in Camden. That was fine, Josh thought, if that was what he'd wanted, but he'd been in John's little office cubicle down in Camden, with no view of the sun, no view of the outside, no view of anything but a computer screen and tons upon tons of incomprehensible numbers, and nothing much to look forward to besides more numbers for year upon endless year. When Josh had walked out of the building, he'd been grateful for the deep breath of fresh air.

But, John was making good money, Sarah never failed to point out. Of course, with a wife, a kid, and another on the way, he was strapped as anyone else. Josh did a little math in his head. He wasn't making the same kind of money his dad was, of course, because his dad had all that seniority, but by the time you added the new base pay, plus the overtime, plus the unemployment in the winter together, he was going to be making better money than John. And that didn't even mention the four months of more or less free time in the winter, compared to John's two weeks of vacation that was difficult to take more than a day or two at a time since accounts continued to demand his attention.

No matter how you cut it, he had a better deal than John, without a minute of college, unless you considered the maintainer's school down in LaGrange as college, which his mother wouldn't. There'd been trouble over that, too, but since Bud had been paying for it and paying his wages, besides, the income in the winter had balanced that off. He figured that John would probably pull back ahead of him in salary, at least in raw numbers, but at what cost? A more expensive lifestyle, but one that didn't include the open air, the woods, the feeling of actually doing something, the freedom? Josh knew he was lucky to fall into this by accident, nearly four years ago, but now that he had literally put a life that he liked together, why give it up for one that he'd hate? Screw college, even if it meant being able to screw Amy again, which it probably wouldn't. It wasn't an option worth considering.

But his mother would never understand that, ever. As far as she was concerned, if you went to college, you were a success. If you didn't, you weren't. Josh and his dad might be able to string her along for the rest of the summer, but that string was wearing mighty thin. Sooner or later, there was going to be a blowup, and living at home was going to be pure hell.

Then there was the dogs. They'd strung that out about as far as it would go, and then some. Back in the days when it had been only the five dogs he'd gotten from Woody, it had been easy. Even training them had only involved a couple hours a day, a few days a week, and everybody else was out screwing around with dogs at the same time, so it had been an extension of the summer before. But more dogs had meant more training, more time, and it was getting harder and harder to do, and yet, if there were any hopes of being competitive again, it would take more dogs, not less, more time, not less, and he was already getting enough flak from her about the amount of time he spent messing around with the dogs.

And, to be fair, he was near the limits of what he felt he could ask from Mark, who had a hell of a lot of dogs out in back of his house.

The simple answer, he realized, was to get his own place, and that would be possible, now. That would be an utter admission to his mother that he was going to stay with railroading, but she was going to figure that out sooner or later, anyway. Maybe a little cabin out in the woods, where he could keep the dogs without any neighbors to bother, someplace where there was room enough to train them. It couldn't be a rental, of course, not with the dogs, but his bank account could stand a pretty healthy down payment. It couldn't be real far back in the woods, of course; he'd have to be close enough to go to work without taking a lot of time.

It seemed like the logical thing to do. He glanced at his watch. B-Pit was supposed to tie up in Spearfish Lake an hour before K-Pit, after their loaded run down from Big Pit west of Walsenberg, but if his dad ran late, he might get a chance to bounce the idea off of him privately, before they got home. If not, he'd find some sort of excuse to get his dad out of the house alone this evening.

Any hope of B-Pit running late was largely futile, of course; unless something broke on the older engines, and it rarely did, thanks to ongoing good maintenance, it ran on time. By the time Josh and Danny tied up on Track 2, the two GP-9s sitting next to them on Track 1 were quiet, and even the office was empty. Even though SLLT was called for 1800, it had already left. Josh knew that if John had the SLCR run ready to hand off, Bud liked to leave as soon as B-Pit had tied up; the earlier he could leave, the earlier he could get back. It was still going to be midnight, or later, before he could tie SLLT up for the day.

They shut down the SD-38s, set the brakes, and called it a day. "See you tomorrow," Josh called to Danny as he got in his pickup truck. Everything had gone pretty close to all right. They'd had to hold up a few minutes for John and Herm in SLCR, doing some switching down near Moffat, but that had been anticipated, and worked out on the radio even before leaving Spearfish Lake for the second half of the day. He couldn't complain; if you took out the few minutes of planned holdup, he'd run right on time, and the system was designed so that there was some slack for unanticipated things happening. If something major slowed things up so they'd hit the 12-hour DOT limit and have to tie up out in the boonies somewhere, then the whole system for the next day would get screwed up, and nobody would be happy. It usually happened two or three times a summer, usually due to mechanicals, and it sometimes took days to get everything back in working order.

But, neither Walt nor Sarah were home when Josh got there; there was a note: "Gone to Ed and Jill's for dinner and cards. There's leftovers you can microwave." It was a little disappointing; he'd liked to have shared the victory of the day, but he knew that his Dad knew that it would have to be minimized around the house, lest it cause problems. That would just make things worse.

Josh gave some thought to hopping back in the truck, and running out to the Spearfish Lake Inn -- the big motel out on the highway, not the Spearfish Lake Cafe, where he'd had lunch. They had some great steaks, and he really wasn't in the mood for leftovers. A steak would be appropriate for a day like today, but he realized he'd better get a shower before he headed out to the Inn; though better than in the steam days, fifty and more years before, railroading could still be a dirty job. He really wasn't that bad, but he felt dirty and sweaty after the hot afternoon, so went up and took a shower.

He was just pulling on underwear when the phone went off. He thought about letting it go; probably a sales call, at this hour. But, you never knew; he headed downstairs to answer it.

It wasn't a sales call. It was Dennis Bergen, a guy he'd helped get started with dogsleds the previous summer. He had a pretty good team; he'd finished fourth in the Warsaw Run last winter. "Jesus, God, Josh, I'm glad I caught you home," he said in a panicked voice. "I've got trouble, big time. Look, I gotta get rid of the team, right now."

"What the hell?" Josh asked.

"Amanda's on the warpath." He sounded frantic. "Says I gotta get rid of the team, the sled, the doghouses, everything, right now, or she'll leave me. She's ready to do it. Look, I don't care if I gotta give them away for nothing, they've got to be out of here tonight."

"Give me a second," Josh said, thinking furiously. Bergen had a couple of pretty good dogs, and five more that might or not be worth the effort, although the whole team had finished the Warsaw Run better than he had. And, he had a brand-new Tim White racing sled, a thousand dollars worth of plastic hotrod that had barely been used. What the hell, someone could use the dogs, even if he couldn't; he wouldn't have trouble getting rid of them. And, the sled was a deal. "A hundred bucks sound fair?" he said. "I think I've got that much cash in my wallet."

"A hundred bucks beats the living hell out of shooting them, which is what she says she's gonna do if you don't get over here," Bergen said, obviously worried but a bit relieved.

"Tell her I'm on my way," Josh said. "I gotta get some clothes on and get the dog box on the truck, so it's a half hour or so."

There was some talking in the background -- well, yelling was part of it. The words were muffled, but the emotion was clear. Bergen came back on the line. "Make it as quick as you can, Josh." The phone went dead in his ear.

It was quicker to pull on his dirty work clothes, rather than put on clean ones. In only a couple minutes, he was out in the truck, backing it up to the dog box. He'd built the dog box right after he'd gotten the truck, which was shortly after he'd gotten the team from Woody. It wasn't the sort of thing that he'd wanted to have on the back of the truck all the time; built rather crudely with reject waferboard from the plywood plant, it was rather ugly, but it had compartments for ten dogs. It had taken both this dog box and Mark's, with some dogs doubled up, to get to the various races they'd been to the past two winters. It sat on a rack alongside the garage, so he could back the truck up under the end of it, and slide it onto the sides. Four clamps held it into place. When he wanted to use the dog box, he could have it on the truck in ten minutes, and that was about what he managed. At the last instant, he decided he'd better throw in a couple of coils of rope from the garage, to tie down the sled, if nothing else.

It was several minutes drive over to Bergen's house. It was a damn shame, Josh thought. Bergen had only been into dogsleds for a year, but he'd had a pretty good year, with what Josh thought was a rather mediocre team, except for those two really good dogs. He'd been into it seriously, and it seemed like he was well on his way to having one of the better teams in the area. Now, this. Was a woman worth it?

Bergen was standing out in the dog lot, petting his leader, Magic, tears running down his eyes. Magic had never struck Josh as a particularly good leader, but the two obviously had a bond. This had to hurt. He'd try to make it as painless as possible.

"Thank God you're here," he said. "Amanda said she was going to shoot them if you didn't get here pretty quick. She was all set. I took this off of her," he said, holding a chrome-plated .22 revolver.

God knew what had set her off, but this had the potential for trouble. Josh would have been happier if he'd called one of the local cops, but there might not be time for that, now. The first thing to do was to get the dogs into the dog box, to get them out of sight, if nothing else. "Look," he told Bergen in a low voice as they loaded dogs. "Mark is going to flip when I show up. I'm not going to be able to hold onto all of them, but I'll at least keep Magic for you if Amanda will ever let you have her back."

"Not much chance of that," Bergen said, tears still rolling. "But thanks, anyway."

They worked quickly, loading the doghouses on top of the dog box. There were boxes of other things -- harnesses, good ones at that, ganglines, other gear, dog food, quite a bit of it. There was even a box of books. Laying on top was George Attla's "Everything I Know About Training And Racing Sled Dogs." Josh had wanted to even read a copy of that for a couple of years, but hadn't been able to find one. Though rushed, he pawed through the stack for a moment -- this was quite a collection. Hudson Stuck's "Ten Thousand Miles By Dog Sled," Lawrence Gould's "Cold," Admiral Byrd's "Discovery". An awesome collection of pretty rare books, just from those few titles, and more besides. "Sure you don't want to keep these?" Josh asked.

Bergen shook his head. "It'll just hurt too much to look at them."

"Look, Dennis," Josh said. "I know it doesn't seem possible now, but if you ever can get back into this, I owe you. I'll just keep these for you."

"Thanks, Josh," he replied, a little more sober, now. "It probably won't happen, but thanks, anyway."

Last to go was the little White racing sled. The only place for it was to have it balanced precariously on the open tailgate, tied on with one of the ropes he'd brought. Even so, things were loose; he'd have to drive carefully.

Josh finished tying the sled and doghouses down, while Bergen stood at the side of the truck, out of sight of the house, giving Magic one last pet. "I better get out of here," Josh said, reaching for his wallet. "Maybe things will cool down when I'm gone."

Bergen waved the money away. "Look, just be good to them, find good homes for them if you can't keep them, that's all I ask. Take this with you," he said, handing Josh the revolver. "At least it won't be around the house." He gave Magic one last pet, and the tears started rolling again.

Josh drove gingerly down the street until he was out of sight of Bergen's house, then stopped to tighten up the ropes. He'd done a hurried, half-assed job, and the last stretch into Mark's house -- well, they didn't call it "Busted Axle Road" for nothing. As he got back into the truck, he saw the revolver laying on the seat, and all of a sudden realized what had been going on. If Amanda had found another gun while they were loading up ... it was enough to give him a major case of the shakes. It had to have been even worse than he'd thought. Why in hell would a man want to put up with a woman like that?

He took his time getting out to Mark's house, partly because of the load, and partly because he was trying to figure out how he was going to break it to Mark that there were going to be seven more dogs out by the airstrip.

There were several vehicles sitting in the yard when Josh got there. Mike's minivan, but that wasn't anything new, but a strange pickup was there, too. Josh saw the Siberian Husky head logo on the door of the pickup, and knew that it had to be Greg Mears'. That's all he needed tonight, another dogsled association hassle.

Mark, Jackie, Mike and Greg were sitting out in the lawn chairs as he pulled up, each holding beers. Greg's other hobby, in addition to Siberian Huskies and dog association politics, was beer -- not knocking back the Bud Lights, but exotic, imported beers, drunk in moderation with the taste of the conniseur. He'd never heard of anything that Greg drank.

"What the hell is this?" Mark called at the sight of Josh's truck.

"Trouble, with a capital T," Josh replied, trying to keep it light, "Which rhymes with B, which stands for Amanda Bergen."

Jackie shook her head. "I knew it was going to come to this some day."

"Worse than that," Josh said, holding up the revolver as he got out of the truck. "He took this off of her. He gave it to me, since he didn't want it around the house."

"What are you going to do?" Mark asked.

Josh shook his head. "Well, actually, I think that for a few days, I'm just going to feed 'em, and see if it blows over, and he wants the dogs back."

"If it got that far, it probably won't," Mike commented.

"Well, if it doesn't," Josh said. "There are two or three good dogs here. I've got several of my own I wouldn't mind trading off. Maybe if we wind up having to go to ten dogs for the Warsaw Run, I can trade two or three for one."

"That's what we were talking about," Greg said. "We are and we aren't. Let's get those dogs off the truck, and then I'll tell you about it."

With the five of them, it didn't take long to get the dogs off the truck, and tied out on chains, although better picket posts were going to have to be put in at the first opportunity. They unloaded the White sled, and the other gear from the truck, and stored it in the corner of the shop that Mark used for dogsled gear; Josh snagged the Attla book, and threw it on the seat of the truck, wanting to read it as soon as he could find the time; if Dennis decided he wanted his dogs back, he might not get another chance. "Jesus, what a day," he said as they finished up. "First, Bud surprises me, puts me on the engineer roster, and tells me I'm going to be running K-Pit the rest of the summer, and now this."

"He's got you running K-Pit?" Jackie said, surprised. "Who's braking?"

"Danny Evachevski."

"With the 38s?" Jackie knew what that meant, if no one else did. After all, she was Josh's half-sister, and had grown up with railroads almost as much as he had.

"Sure enough," he said proudly.

"Well, congratulations," Jackie said. "I remember when Dad went to engine service full time. That was when he was back with the Dirty and Old, of course, and I was pretty little, but that was a major big deal."

With the dogs staked out, the four went back up to the lawn chairs behind Mark's back porch. Greg stopped by the cooler in the back of his truck, and brought a dark brown bottle, handing it to Josh. "I take it congratulations are in order," he said. "Here's something to celebrate with."

Josh glanced at the bottle; a nondescript brown label said, "Bell's Ale." It even had an old-fashioned crimp top; Jackie handed him an opener, and he popped the top and took a swig. It was about as far from Bud Light as you could get, sort of sweetish, tasting a little of caramel. "Ye, gods, that's rich," he told Greg.

"Imported all the way from Kalamazoo," Greg said. "They make a nice little ale, though."

"Greg, where do you find all this stuff?" Mark asked.

"Oh, it shows up here and there, and I get it when I can," Greg said mysteriously. "Josh, I take it this is a big deal for you?"

"Yeah, it is," Josh said. He spent a couple minutes explaining, though much of the explaination was lost on all but Jackie, except for the summary: "What it means is that I have a good-paying job that's not going away on me, and plenty of time in the winters. The responsibility is awesome, and I'm having a little trouble realizing just how much faith Bud has in me to give it to me."

"He put it in the right place," Greg said. "I've seen how you are with dogs. If you handle trains the same way, you won't have any trouble."

"Well, I just hope it works out," Josh said. "It's going to be a busy summer."

"You'll do fine," Mike said. He'd been ten years older before George Webb had given him a comparable level of responsibility, and it wasn't the same kind of thing.

"Jackie, could I trouble you for a sandwich or something?" Josh asked. "I hadn't had a chance to eat anything when Dennis called, and if I don't eat something, this beer of Greg's is going to knock me on my butt."

"Sure, what kind of sandwich?"

"Anything on anything."

"I think I can manage that," she said, getting up from her chair.

Josh leaned back. Though he'd managed to keep it muted all day, the excitement of being turned loose with the SD-38s had taken a chunk out of him. Then, the adreneline rush when he'd realized the danger he'd been in at Bergen's. He hadn't noticed it at the time, but the more he thought about it the harder it hit him. Wouldn't that have been a bitch, to get shot on the same day he made the engineer roster? Now, Greg's beer on an empty stomach had just about used up his reserves. Thinking about something else wouldn't hurt. "So, what's the deal on ten dogs?" he asked.

"I was just getting started, so I'll take it from the top," Greg said.

He didn't actually start at the beginning, but Josh knew what had gone before. The big problem, always the big problem, was people like Kathy Webb, who knew nothing about dogsledding, assumed they knew everything, and were unwilling to learn from what they saw in front of them. In fact, she was a relatively minor problem. Though it hadn't happened to them, there had been court cases elsewhere where people had tried to stop dogsled races, have the local humane societies impound the animals, on the grounds that the mushers had been cruel to their dogs. Anyone who had ever seen racing mushers work and train their dogs knew that they were being anything but cruel.

Mark and Mike had taken some of that sort of heat, but working almost entirely with dogs rescued from the dog pound, they had built successful teams. Four of Mike's dogs, including his smart little leader, Ringo, had been less than an hour from being gassed when he'd rescued them. George, Tiffany's great leader, probably wouldn't have lasted another two days. The dogs were well-fed, exercised, and carefully cared for, and no matter how much anyone had complained, Mark and Mike figured that beat a gas chamber, any day. The local dog pounds and humane societies generally agreed, and by now had a list of people to call if a dog with team potential showed up.

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