Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

Busted Axle Road
a novel by
Wes Boyd
Copyright ©1993, ©2001, ©2007, ©2013

Chapter 2

By lunch hour, Mrs. Clark had suffered about all she wanted to of the fourth grade for one morning. She needed the break.

The break the elementary teachers got wasn’t as good as the ones the teachers got over in the high school; there, they got a full hour of break time each day – well, a fifty-minute hour, and that was close enough, and they got the lunch period, too. The elementary teachers only got the thirty minute lunch "hour," and sometimes it wasn’t enough to recover and get ready to put up with the kids for the last couple of hours of the day.

Most days, Mrs. Clark was just happy enough to sit in the break room, try to bring her blood nicotine level back into balance and gather her strength, while she wished she taught at the high school, wondering what had ever convinced her she wanted to teach elementary school.

At that, she was glad she’d turned down the opportunity to go over to the middle school this year. The elementary kids were bad enough, but when they got a little older and reached puberty, it was hormone hell over there.

But, today was different, mostly because she remembered she’d smoked the last cigarette in her purse in the break room just before class started. There was a cigarette machine over in the high school break room, and it was the closest one she knew of. Besides, she thought John Pacobel, the biology teacher, was on break during her lunch hour; that meant she could get the bag with that snake in it off of her desk, where she wouldn’t have to think about it.

Sure enough, Pacobel was in the break room, going over some papers that appeared to have something to do with sports. The biology teacher was also the girls’ softball coach – or, perhaps, the other way around might have said it better.

Pacobel took tremendous pride in the fact that he’d coached the girls’ softball team to a state championship four years before. When you drove into town, right under the sign that said, "Spearfish Lake" was a sign reading, "Class B Girls Softball Champions, 1983." It didn’t say, "Home town of Jenny Easton," Spearfish Lake’s most famous resident, even though the popular country singer had made enough money to buy the whole town if she wanted to.

However, Linda Clark wasn’t exactly John Pacobel’s greatest fan. She’d been at the state final game against Camden St. Dismas, back in 1983, and remembered how Pacobel had almost blown it by leaving his daughter in pitching while she was getting shelled. Only a tremendous last-inning save by Brandy Evachevski, Jenny Evachevski/Easton’s younger sister, had pulled the game from the fire, and Pacobel acted as if it had never happened.

But that wasn’t the reason that Linda didn’t like the softball coach, and she knew it. The coach had long been free of his wife, and with his only daughter off at college someplace, he now had a reputation for sleeping around – with girls who had been on his softball, volleyball, or basketball teams. He was careful about it; he never messed with a girl while she was in school, but after she graduated, she was fair game. That certainly fit the letter of the law, but not the intent, she thought.

Linda wasn’t alone in her dislike, but the teacher had tenure, and couldn’t be booted out on rumors. Besides, that state championship drew him a lot of water, even though no Spearfish Lake girls’ team had ever gotten close to the playoffs since 1983, mostly because another Brandy Evachevski hadn’t come along.

First things first. She dropped a handful of quarters into the machine, made it burp up a pack of Virginia Slims, then turned to the coach, opening the pack. "John, I’ve got a problem," she said.

A little irritated at the interruption, Pacobel looked up from his stat sheet and his struggle to decide whether to pitch the Hekkinan girl. She wasn’t that great a pitcher, but she was the athletic director’s daughter, and that made things a little more difficult. She couldn’t be left on the bench all season . . . "What is it?" he asked.

"One of my kids brought this to class," she said, setting the unopened bag on the stat sheets. "She said it crawled out of her bathtub drain this morning, and she’d like to know what it is."

Pacobel picked up the bag and opened it, pulling out the peanut butter jar. He looked at the remains of the snake, a little the worse for wear after its bout with the hair dryer. "Northern water snake," he said after a moment. "Immature. Kind of strange, being out this time of the year."

"Well, it was living in the sewer, so maybe it’s a little different," she commented, lighting a Virginia Slim.

"Yeah," Pacobel frowned, holding the jar up to the light to get a better look. Something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t put a finger on it.

"Well, I guess I can tell Tiffany it was a northern water snake," Linda commented.

"That’s close enough for elementary school," Pacobel agreed.

*   *   *

It shouldn’t have been that easy, Mike thought. Something’s wrong. What is it?

With Carrie gone to the Woman’s Club deal, and with Webb at Rotary, they were shorthanded in the back room, so Mike left Sally back at the shop once they’d finished with the Spearfish Lake and Albany River drops, offering to make the country run solo. At least no inserts this week, he thought. Even though they brought in part-timers to help with the inserting when needed, inserting on top of everything else was a pain in the butt. The long solo run out to Warsaw and back would give Mike another opportunity to think, and it was clear that he needed the time.

How many times had he gently pressured Kirsten to do something about the house, only to have her brush him off? Now, one snake, and she couldn’t wait to sell. He hated to see Kirsten upset, as she’d gone through a lot of agony in her life, and seeing her hurting made him hurt. Probably the worst of it would blow over in a few days, and at least they’d have made a move to get rid of the house. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d ridden out one of her episodes, and he knew he’d just have to hang on and ride until the storm blew over.

North of the lake, Mike slowed to turn up County Road 919. Shaundessy’s Bait and Tackle at Mud Lake sold about five papers a week in the winter, but made up for it with fifty a week in the summer, so it was worth the stop, only a mile or so off the main road. It took a minute to go in and deal with the papers, but a good five minutes to get out of there, shooting the bull with Emil over where the perch were biting and where the ice was still safe – nowhere on the river or the smaller ponds, but there was still some good ice out on the east end of the big lake.

In the van again, Mike headed back out on the pavement. He pointed the van east, and set his mind on automatic. He absent-mindedly made the bundle drops in Hoselton, then drove on to Warsaw. There’d been a lot of rebuilding in Warsaw since the great fire of ’81; the new paper plant had thrown money into the community that hadn’t been there before, and these days, you could hardly see any trace of the fire. There was one thing Mike still missed from pre-fire days, though.

The big reward for making the Warsaw run before the fire had been the lunch stop at Millie’s Pizza. Simply put, Millie’s had made absolutely the most luscious, heavenly pizza ever to pass between a set of teeth. Mike had been saddened to watch the shop go up in smoke, and would have been more saddened as he watched had he known it would be replaced with a third-rate coffee shop that would invariably screw up a simple hamburger. He usually didn’t even stop there, but held out till he could get back to Spearfish Lake. Today, however, he was a little thirsty, and decided to risk the coffee.

He was a little surprised to see Fred Linder sitting in the coffee shop. At the time of the fire, Linder had been a machine operator in the plant, but as the village fire chief, he’d played a pivotal role in the fire, and, as it turned out, an even more pivotal role in the rebuilding. When the new plant had needed a production manager, Fred was the obvious choice.

Fred was one of the good guys, and it had been a while since Mike had seen him. "So what’s happening with Jerusalem Paper these days?" Mike asked.

"Quite a bit," Linder told him. "We’re tacking on another ten thousand-square-foot addition, and going to set up two new lines. Something new: an unscented, undyed, more biodegradable premium toilet paper. More environmentally sound."

"Yeah, but how bad is it going to stink up the town?" Mike asked. The new plant wasn’t too bad now, but the old one, the one that had gone up in the fire, had reeked to high heaven.

"Oh, Christ," Linder snorted, "not a bit. We got so many environmental controls, OSHA controls, health department controls, you-name-it controls, we’re going to have to kill half a forest filling out forms before we wipe a single butt."

"Any new hiring?"

"Maybe half a dozen," Linder said. "Nothing spectacular. This new line is going to be pretty automated. Maybe not even any more local pulp cutting; the biggest part of what we do now is with pre-chipped stuff the railroad hauls in."

"When do you think you’re going to be able to go on line?"

"Fall, maybe, if all the paperwork passes requirements. You’d better talk to Chip Halsey about it, though. I wouldn’t want him to think I’m going behind his back."

That made the coffee stop worthwhile, all by itself. This was a big story, Mike thought, one that the stringer out here had totally missed, being too involved in the end of the basketball season. He’d talk to Halsey, and then rub the stringer’s nose in it. "Sure will," Mike agreed.

"You coming out for the snowmobile race this weekend?" Linder asked.

"You haven’t got enough snow left for a snowmobile race," Mike protested. "Besides, when it gets to April, I’m past thinking about snowmobiles. Maybe I’ll send Pat out. The kid needs something to do on the weekends to keep his mind occupied."

*   *   *

Linda Clark managed to get through two cigarettes in the high school teacher’s lounge before looking at her watch, and realized she had to head back over to the elementary school. With the nicotine recharge, she could hold out till two thirty, and she would no longer have to worry about the snake, which she left on the table with Pacobel.

The coach immediately went back to figuring out who to pitch in the season opener and didn’t remember it sitting there for a while. Finally, he decided to go ahead and pitch the Hekkinan girl. After all, it wasn’t a league game, so it wouldn’t hurt much if she blew it, and it would make her father happy. As her father was the A.D., she wasn’t a prospect for postgraduate activities, but there was another girl, a little blonde, who would feel grateful for starting later in the season . . .

It wasn’t until he got up to leave that he saw the snake sitting there, quiet in its peanut butter jar. Ought to just leave it there for the janitor, he thought, but then got a better idea.

Pacobel’s last hour of the day was the advanced biology class. He only got enough kids to teach advanced biology every two or three years by combining kids who had already taken Biology I, and these were sharp kids who really wanted to learn something. Though Pacobel had more of his attention on sports than on biology, he really enjoyed teaching his sophomores, juniors and seniors in the advanced bio class; those kids were there because they wanted to be, not because of just a science requirement they had to get out of the way.

The one pain in the neck in advanced biology was really two pains in the neck: Danny Evachevski and Josh Archer. They were sharp kids, or they wouldn’t have been there, and they aced everything. They were also both football players – Evachevski a senior and Archer a sophomore, although he’d ended up on varsity last fall. But they were both full of themselves, like a lot of athletes, and rather a disruptive influence.

This was a project day – the kids had a number of directed learning projects they were concentrating on – but Evachevski and Archer already had their project well under control. They would be looking for some trouble and were capable of finding it. The little snake gave him a chance to head the two off at the pass.

Pacobel had about five minutes worth of talk, mostly giving directions, before he turned the kids loose. He ended his little talk with, "Evachevski, Archer. I’ve got a little extra-credit project for you."

Those two needed extra credit like Seattle needs rain, Pacobel knew, but it made an excuse. Now that he had the class’s attention, he held up the peanut butter jar with the dead snake and went on, "I had this left with me earlier. It looks like a northern water snake, but something isn’t quite right. I want you to tell me what it is."

Danny Evachevski nodded. "Can we use your Peterson’s Guide?"

"Sure," Pacobel said, "use any of the reference books here in the lab." He was pretty sure it was in fact a northern water snake, but the immaturity would make it harder to identify. That would keep the two busy for at least a little while. He gave the two boys the snake, then pulled out the stat sheets, thinking again. If he gave the Hekkinan kid a start later in the season, maybe in a nonleague game, then . . .

Evachevski took the snake out of the peanut butter jar and laid it out on a dissecting tray, while Archer went for the Peterson’s Field Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians.

"I don’t think it’s a northern water snake," Archer said, after looking at the drawings of the other possibilities, Evachevski looking over his shoulder.

"I don’t know," Evachevski said finally, "strikes me that a northern water snake has red or orange stripes. This guy has yellow spots and a yellow belly, but maybe immaturity has something to do with the strange markings. On the other hand, the book says there are a couple of rare subspecies."

"You know what it looks like?" Archer said. "It fits the description for a Gibson’s water snake."

Evachevski shook his head. "The book says they’re endangered, and believed extinct."


"So what are the chances of Pacobel showing up in class with some extinct snake? Northern water snakes have a broad range in patterns, the book says. Who’s to say this thing doesn’t fall outside the norm but is still in the range?"

They chewed on the question for a few minutes, then ransacked the reference shelves for more definitive information. They found a couple of books with more detailed descriptions, but as the hour wound down, they were no further than the Peterson’s had taken them.

Pacobel had spent most of the hour with his mind on the softball season, and especially a couple of the softball players who tickled his fancy. It was some time before he realized that Evachevski and Archer has built a large pile of books up around the snake in the dissecting tray, and decided to investigate. He wandered over to the table and asked, "Have you figured out what you’ve got there?"

"It’s probably a northern water snake at the extreme range of its pattern," Evachevski said. "But the pattern also fits a Gibson’s water snake."

Archer rummaged around on the table, found the picture in the Peterson’s, and showed it to the teacher. "Danny thinks it’s a northern water snake," he said, "but the pattern is dead on the nose for a Gibson’s."

"Interesting," Pacobel admitted. "Odds are it’s not a Gibson’s, but it would be interesting to run it past someone who knows more about it than we do. Why don’t you put it in some formaldehyde? I’ve got to go down to State in a couple of weeks, and I’ll run it past a friend of mine."

*   *   *

It was getting to be along in the afternoon before Mike got the van back to Spearfish Lake. It was time for the kids to be home from school, so Mike thought he’d better swing by and check on them.

Nine was perhaps a little on the young side for Tiffany to be home alone with Henry, but so far it had worked out all right. Still, if Mike or Kirsten were out in the late afternoon, they tried to swing by the house just to check on the kids.

The situation was essentially normal when he walked into the house. The TV was blaring, and Henry was watching the afternoon cartoons that were really too violent for him, but what could you do about it? Tiffany was sitting at the kitchen table, working on her homework. Math, it looked like.

And that was as good an illustration as any about why Mike didn’t worry too much about having Tiffany come home from school and watch Henry. They didn’t have to keep after her to do her homework; she’d have it done. Tiffany was very sober, responsible, and competent for a nine year old, and somehow, Mike wondered how they’d managed to raise such a child. Henry was more like you expected for a six year old, a typical pain in the butt, but Tiffany could keep him under control when Mike and Kirsten couldn’t.

"What’s the homework today?" Mike asked.

"Multiplying three-digit numbers," Tiffany replied, and then frowned, "It’s HARD, Daddy."

Mike looked at the page she was working on, and the erasures indicated she’d been having trouble with the last problem. He could see why. "You want to be a little neater with getting your columns lined up," Mike said. "You’re adding the same number in twice, there."

Tiffany looked the problem over, and went over it with her pencil. "Oh, goofy me," she said after a moment. "There it is. Thanks, Daddy."

Perhaps now was the time to get to the bottom of everything. "What’s this Mommy told me about a snake in the bathtub this morning?"

"Mommy saw it in the tub and screamed, and then she killed it," Tiffany said. "I’m sorry she killed it. It would have made a nice pet."

The day Kirsten would allow Tiffany to keep a snake for a pet would also be the day that hell froze over, Mike thought. "Did it come up out of the drain?" he asked.

"I didn’t see it come out of the drain, but the tail was in the drain when I got it. Mommy was so scared that she pooped on the floor."

Mike snickered, but kept it to himself. Kirsten hadn’t been kidding when she’d said it had scared the shit out of her! That explained a lot of why Kirsten was bothered; the embarrassment, on top of the being scared would account for it. "We’d better keep that between you and Mommy and me," he said thoughtfully, "and not tell anyone else. What happened to the snake?"

"I took it to school, and Mrs. Clark said that Mr. Pacobel said it was a northern water snake."

"Well, if it was a water snake, it wouldn’t have made a very good pet, then, would it?"

"I guess not," she said sadly. "Daddy, can we have a dog?"

"You know we can’t, Tiffinapolis," he replied, using his pet name for her. "Maybe someday, when we have a bigger house." Which might not be as far in the future as he’d previously figured, he thought to himself, but there was no point in letting the cat out of the bag, just yet. "What kind of dog would you like to have?"

"A big dog," she said. "A sled dog, maybe. Mrs. Clark said there’s going to be a show on PBS tonight about a woman in Alaska who raises sled dogs. Can we watch it, Daddy?"

"Sounds like it might be fun," Mike admitted. It had to be better than the regular crap, anyway. "Well, look, I’ve got to go to the bathroom, then get back to work. Mommy and I might be a little late."

"Would you like me to start supper, Daddy?"

Mike thought for a moment. Kirsten probably wasn’t going to be in any mood to want to cook, but he still wasn’t quite ready to let Tiffany use the stove with no adults present. "No," he said finally. "Maybe Mommy and I will just pick up a pizza. Would you like that?"

"Sure thing, Daddy."

What a kid, Mike thought as he went upstairs. Henry was your typical kid, but Tiffany was a real joy. He had never thought he would get much of a thrill out of being a parent, but a kid that good made it worth the effort. When she got a little older, they would have to make sure they didn’t take too much advantage of her by having her babysit more than necessary.

He was happy to make it to the bathroom; it was becoming a necessity. He checked the bathroom carefully, especially the tub, but there was no sign that anything untoward had happened there. He sighed; he was probably going to have to check the bathroom before Kirsten used it for months, perhaps as long as they lived there.

That wasn’t all bad, though; it would keep up Kirsten’s motivation toward moving. Kirsten would probably want to move to a house with a septic tank, which meant moving out of town completely. Well, that was fine with him. Living in the country had its advantages.

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