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 5

May, 1987

John Pacobel would rather have left for Athens on Friday night, but theyíd had to play a rare evening double-header at Lynchburg to make up for a rainout of the home opener. Fortunately, the field was lit and it was light until late, anyway, but it made for an awfully late evening when they got back to Spearfish Lake. His appointment with Pam was for eleven oíclock, but that meant he had to get up very early and drive hard to make it. The alternative was driving all night and having to sleep alongside the road, not good when he wanted to put forth his best appearance, for more reasons than one.

What made it worse was theyíd lost both sides of the double-header, their first real league matchup of the season, and that made the rest of the season look not very promising. The opportunities the girls had missed . . . it was very frustrating.

For ten days, heíd been thinking about the snake, when he should have been thinking about softball. Now that he was actually on his way to do something about the snake, all he could think about was the way the girls had screwed up the softball games.

Oh, well, it was going to be a beautiful day. Some warm weather had pushed in, making for an unseasonably nice spring day, even in the early morning hours. With any kind of luck at all, it should be a good day, both with the snake and with Pam. Either way, it ought to make it worth a short night and a long drive.

It was indeed a long drive to Athens, and the traffic was fairly heavy. Pacobel glanced at his watch repeatedly; making his appointment with Pam at eleven was going to be a very tight thing. Fortunately, Pacobel knew the Athens University campus well, and he had a couple of minutes to spare when he pulled into a parking space outside the biological sciences building.

Pam was waiting for him in the herpetological lab, along with a tall, young, bearded man in a lab coat. "John, this is Professor Gerjevic," Pam said by way of introduction. "When you said you had an interesting snake, I thought he might want to take a look at it."

While Pacobel was glad of the extra expertise in evaluating the curious little snake, he was also very good at picking up vibrations himself, and the vibrations he got werenít promising for his secondary motive for the trip. Either Pam had asked Gerjevic to be there as a sort of chaperone as well as for his expertise, or there was something going on there that was a little beyond the normal teacher/student relationship. Either way, he felt his own chances of getting on the scoreboard now were just about zilch. "This is kind of an interesting little guy," he said. "Probably a northern water snake, but the markings seem consistent with a Gibsonís water snake, at least in any of the references I have access to.

Gerjevic took the jar, held it up to the light, and studied it for a moment. "It could well be a Gibsonís," he said. "If it is, it would be a major find. Too bad itís damaged. How did you come by this?"

"A kid brought it to class," Pacobel said, simplifying the story. "It crawled out of a bathtub drain, and the kidís mother whacked it."

"Out of a drain, huh?" Gerjevic said. "Well, if it were living in a sewer, that would account for being out of the torpid stage this early in the season."

"But how could it live in a sewer?" Pam asked. "I mean, this is a water snake, but itís got to breathe somewhere. And, how could a snake survive when a housewife clears out a sink drain with Drano or something?"

"That question bothered me, too," Pacobel admitted. "But when I read the front page of the Record-Herald this week, I realized that itís a combined storm and sanitary sewer."

"Ah," Gerjevic nodded. "Thatíll have plenty of openings to the outside air, and the matter in the lines would probably be dilute enough that an occasional dose of caustic soda might not be so devastating."

Pam thought about it for a moment, then commented, "Frank, it might even be an attractor. Perhaps drain cleaner or stuff like that kills off something that might be a predator on the snake."

The high school teacher commented, "Itíd have to be a tough little critter, though, and somehow you donít think of endangered species as being tough little critters."

Gerjevic nodded. "John Ė may I call you John? Any life form can be tough under the appropriate circumstances. If this is a Gibsonís, itís picked a unique, delicately balanced ecosystem to live in. If itís a Gibsonís, this sewer system could be the only place where they survive, perhaps the only place where they can survive."

"Yeah," Pacobel nodded. "And, it may not last too much longer."

"What?" both Pam and Gerjevic chorused.

"Pam, youíre from Spearfish Lake," Pacobel teased, glad to be one up on the lofty sounding professor. "What do you remember about the storm sewer separation project?"

The grad student shook her head. "Not much," she said. "I remember reading headlines."

"Well," Pacobel said. "If those snakes are living in a delicately balanced ecosystem, then the city is getting set to screw up the balance." He pulled a copy of the Record-Herald from his briefcase, pointed at the lead story, and handed it to her.

Gerjevic read it over her shoulder, just skimming quickly. In only seconds, he commented. "Theyíd have a tough time adapting to a separated sewer, if they could adapt at all. I donít think they could survive in the sanitary side. There wouldnít be much oxygen, the chemical and biological concentrations would be too high. On the other hand, their food source would be a lot more dilute and periodic in a storm sewer, so they might not be able to survive there, either."

"Thatís the way I read it," Pacobel agreed.

*   *   *

Mike knew Kirsten was going to be of a limited and lessening amount of help with the move as the date for it drew closer. That was a problem with having to move so close to her due date, but getting her to agree to move at all made it worth the extra effort. Now, she couldnít move quickly enough.

As expected, Mike still had to check the bathroom every time before Kirsten used it, but there had been no sign of another snake. At least she no longer felt quite so uptight about the office, and there had been times when both Mike and Tiffany had been gone somewhere that Kirsten hopped in the car and drove down to the office when she had to go.

The really heavy work of moving didnít worry Mike much. Heíd talked to Danny Evachevski, Gil and Carrieís youngest, and he and some friends of his had agreed to spend several days doing the lifting and carrying. For that matter, Gil and Carrie would help out on the actual moving date, along with Denny and Sally Szczerowski, and maybe a couple of others. It would obviously be a great deal of confusion, and theyíd spend a month packing and another month unpacking, but all theyíd have to do on the actual day is direct traffic.

Theyíd agreed to start getting ready this Saturday, by sorting through boxes in the attic, closing up some of them, and getting rid of some of the contents of others.

It was obvious that the attic was going to be a major contributor to what Mike called the "Biannual Spearfish Lake Free Garage Sale." Usually, garbage pickup in Spearfish Lake was limited to bags, but if you were going to throw out yard brush, or furniture, or old tires, or just a lot of stuff, twice each year the landfill contractor put on extra crews. When that happened, the curbs around the town grew high with goods that had to be saved until the semiannual cleanup.

Of course, one manís trash is another manís treasure, so as soon as the curbs started to get loaded, people began to cruise the streets, looking for whatever they might find useful to them.

Even Mike was not immune. The desk in their bedroom, the one where the home computer sat, was rescued drawerless from a trash pile on Point Drive. With a coat of paint, and some "drawers" made from wooden boxes found in another trash pile, it had served Mike well for several years. It was earmarked for the place in the basement he had reserved for his den/office at the new house.

The only problem was the day was too nice to want to spend it screwing around in the attic. He and Kirsten had already shot one extra cup of coffee, sitting around the kitchen table and putting off the inevitable. Mike was giving some thought to making another cup of instant; it wasnít worth making a whole pot of coffee for himself if Kirsten would only drink decaf out of packages.

"I canít believe how well the kids are taking it," Kirsten said.

"Well, I donít think it means a lot to Henry, one way or the other," Mike said. "Not having to share his room with his sister was the big news for him. Tiffany, on the other hand . . . "

" . . . wants a dog team," Kirsten finished the sentence for him. In fact, Tiffanyís reaction to the news Tuesday night had been a frowning comment that sheíd have to ride the bus, but her smile had widened when she realized that she could have a dog. "Whyíd you tell her that?" she accused.

"I didnít say she could have a dog team, but thatíll blow over in a few days," Mike said in his defense once again. "I told her a while back that we couldnít have a dog until we got a bigger place, and then weíd have to see. Actually, it might be good to have a dog, especially out there."

"I donít know," Kirsten frowned. "I donít think itís a good idea. Theyíre noisy and expensive. Iím not denying that maybe she should have a pet, but maybe something smaller and easier to care for."

This was the third time the subject had come up, and Mike was getting a little tired of it. The time had come to nuke it. "I mentioned weíd think about getting a dog," he said, "when I told her she couldnít have a snake for a pet."

Kirstenís eyes widened, her face grew red, and she gulped before she replied, "Well, maybe an outdoor dog, but I donít want dog hair all over the furniture."

*   *   *

"I donít know about this Spearfish Lake of yours," Gerjevic said. "Would there be a lot of favorable habitat for this snake outside of the sewer system?"

"Itís pretty swampy, especially south of town, and off to the north a ways," Pam said. "I havenít exactly spent a lot of time out in the swamps looking for water snakes, but Iíve never seen one thatís marked much like this one. I think if I had, Iíd have picked up on it."


"Me, either. Itíd be a good habitat for them, but thereís a hell of a lot of area that youíd have to go through with a fine-tooth comb if youíre looking for them. This is the wrong time of year, anyway. Most water snakes are going to still be curled up under some log, zonked out."

"This one obviously wasnít," Gerjevic said. "Sewers are usually down pretty deep, and youíd expect that theyíd be a little warmer than the outside. Youíve got warmth, a food source, and air, and probably not much for predators. It sounds like the sort of environment where an isolated species could find a niche."

"I think thatís been demonstrated," Pam replied.

Pacobel reflected on how college had changed the young brunette. When sheíd been in school, snakes had been about number 107 on her priority list, if they had been there at all. Now, she was even beginning to sound like this tall, bearded herpetologist, and maybe even think like him. There had been a window of opportunity with her, once upon a time, and he had taken advantage of it, but now it was probably closed. Well, that was life. Everybody changed. "It doesnít really matter," he said. "The fact that it came out of the sewer meant that it had been in the sewer. It sure seems to me like it needs further investigation, but whatís the next step?"

"Good point, John," Gerjevic replied. "Actually, what I think we should do next is to notify the Fish and Wildlife Service. Theyíre the ones who actually administer the Endangered Species Act, and if thereís even a possibility that this snake is a Nerodia sipedon gibsoni, then they would be the ones with the authority to take whatever means necessary to protect it."

"At least until it can be determined that there is a colony of them living in the Spearfish Lake sewer," Pam added."

"Thatís an interesting question all by itself," Gerjevic said. "Obviously, someone is going to have to go look for them. There might be some emergency grant money available, perhaps from the Fish and Wildlife Service, perhaps from one of the environmental associations. Youíre still looking for a project for this summer, arenít you, Pam?"

"My grant applications got shot down one by one," she admitted. "Itís beginning to look like Iíll have to flip burgers somewhere this summer."

Gerjevic smiled. "Well, if you donít mind spending the summer at home, perhaps we can find some last-minute money. If you donít turn up any more of these, then itíll be kind of a negative result, and there wouldnít be much in it except the field experience. Of course, if you do, it will make quite a research report. I canít spend the summer there, but I could get up there a couple of times to consult with you."

"It would be nice," Pam agreed. "Itís been a long time since Iíve been able to spend much time at home."

Pacobelís ears perked up. Maybe there was a chance to renew the old relationship, after all. Something seemed strange about Gerjevic, anyway, but Pacobel couldnít quite put his finger on it. He was kind of a queer duck; perhaps that was it. Maybe he was a little swishy. But how did Pam fit in? It didnít matter. If she was going to be home for the summer, then there were all sorts of possibilities. "I donít know that I can put a lot of time into it, off the cuff," he said, "but Iíd be willing to help where I can. One thing weíve got to think about is if they really are living in the sewers weíll have to inspect those lines, somehow. The pipes arenít big enough to get down into, so weíd probably have to find some company that does TV inspections of sewers."

"Good idea, John," Gerjevic said. "Weíll have to be sure to write something into the grant proposal for that. Do you have any idea of how much that would cost?"

Pacobel shook his head. "No idea," he said, "although I would think it canít be cheap. I wouldnít even have any idea of who to ask who does such stuff. I probably could ask the sewage plant superintendent. He probably would know, or maybe the local one here would, too."

"This is a little strange to me," Gerjevic said. "I guess I donít know too much about such things." He yawned, and looked up at the ceiling of the herpetological lab. "Itís Saturday, and thereís no point in trying to contact the Fish and Wildlife Service before Monday, and then, since theyíre a government agency, it will take a while before anything happens. Theyíll probably want to send someone out from their office to do a preliminary assessment before they decide to do a thorough study, so that will give Pam and I a little while to lay some groundwork before we start preparing grant applications."

"Is there anything we can do about this storm sewer separation?" Pam asked.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service will be the first step to that, too," Gerjevic said. "Theyíd have to be the ones to declare it a threatened habitat."

"Thereís a little time," Pacobel said. "This whole thing is in the talking stage right now. All I know is what I read in the paper, but I get the impression that there might be a couple of years before they get the funding and get started on the project."

"Then, weíve got time, but not a lot," Gerjevic said. "Thatís plenty of time for the area to be declared a threatened habitat."

"Well, all right," Pacobel said. "I guess itís worth the effort." He picked up the jar with the snake in it. "I guess I might as well be heading on back. Itís a long drive."

Gerjevic looked alarmed. "Youíre taking the specimen with you?"

"I brought it," Pacobel said. "I wouldnít want it to get lost."

"You donít want to do that," Gerjevic replied. "The Fish and Wildlife Service will want to inspect it. We may have to forward it to them in Minneapolis."

Pacobel flipped a nickel in his mind. As long as he had control of the snake, he had some control of the situation. Perhaps there was a way a little of the grant money could be diverted his way. "I donít know," he said. "I think it belongs in Spearfish Lake."

"John," Gerjevic protested, "if the Fish and Wildlife Service comes here to inspect it, it ought to impress them more and give us a better chance of getting a grant from them."

Oh, what the heck, Pacobel thought. He really didnít want to spend the summer mucking around in the swamp, getting mosquito bitten, or grubbing around in the city sewers, either. He was willing to spend a little time at it if Pam were part of the bargain, and him being compliant now might help her to be more compliant later. She hadnít exactly been a mink in the sack, anyway, but sheíd been young and willing to learn, which had counted for a lot. "Well, I suppose youíre right," he said. "The only thing is, I want a receipt that shows that I left the snake with you."

"We can do that," Gerjevic agreed.

*   *   *

It was a nice day, and the work in the attic got old after a while. Tiring of the hot, sweaty, confined place, Mike and Kirsten decided to take a run out to the new house, mainly to take Tiffany and Henry out to see the place. It was also an excuse to get away from the mess for a while. They were walking around the barn when they saw a pickup truck drive in.

It proved to be Mark and Jackie Gravengood. "We wondered who was here," Mark explained from the pickup. "Weíre supposed to be keeping an eye on this place for Binky."

"Weíre buying this place," Mike announced.

"Well, welcome to Busted Axle Road," Jackie smiled. "Itíll be a nice place to let your kids and cats and dogs run around. You wonít exactly have problems with traffic racing past."

"Itís going to be different from living in town," Kirsten said, "but I think weíre going to like it."

"Weíve been here on Busted Axle Road for fifteen years," Jackie said. "Sometimes, I wish we were a little closer to town, but weíve put a lot of work into our place, and we wouldnít want to give up the airstrip."

"Whatís this ĎBusted Axle Roadí stuff?" Kirsten asked.

"Itís a dead-end road, has been ever since the bridge went out a few years ago," Mark explained. "Because of that, the county gets around to grading it almost never. They get around to plowing the snow only after everything else in the county gets plowed. We get in and out pretty good in the winter if we donít get too bad a storm, since Iíve got a blade I put on the tractor. But, too much snow, and I canít dig through it."

"The road didnít seem too bad when we came out here," Mike said.

"Thatís because I graded it with the tractor a couple of weeks ago," Mark said. "I can do a pretty good job in the spring when the groundís soft. Once itís sat through the summer, baking in the sun, the clay hardens up so much I canít bust it up, even if we get rain, and then it gets all full of potholes and really bad. Then it takes one of their big graders to bust up the hardpan."

Without saying anything, Mike wondered to himself what effect a couple of nasty columns in the Record-Herald would have on the road commission. But there was no point in doing it until he saw how bad it really was. "Well, Iím sure glad weíll have you and your tractor living up the road from us," he said. "You be sure and let me know if thereís anything I can do to help you."

"Donít get me wrong," Mark said, "living here has its compensations. You wonít get bothered much unless somebody really wants to bother you."

Back in high school, Kirsten and Jackie had known each other and been more or less friends, but a lot of water had flowed under the bridge in nearly twenty years. Nowadays, Jackie only saw Kirsten around town by accident, mostly at the grocery store. It was simply that theyíd grown apart, with different lives and different interests, and partly because Mark and Jackie were very close to each other, and not the sort to make close friends easily. For her own reasons, Jackie preferred to stay at home and run her business out of the shop, going to town only when she had to.

Mark and Jackie got out of the truck.

It didnít take Tiffany and Cumulus long to find each other. What started out as a friendly little petting and ear scratching soon turned into a belly scratch. "You be careful with that dog," Kirsten called, a little alarmed.

"Heís a good dog, Mommy," the little girl called.

"He could bite you," Kirsten replied, her voice rising a little. Sheíd never had pets herself, or allowed the children to have pets, except for goldfish, and wasnít used to the sight of her daughter and this dog playing together.

"He wonít bite, Mommy," she said. "I can tell heís a nice dog. Whatís his name?"

"He could scratch you, the way heís rolling around like that."

"His name is Cumulus," Mark explained, "But heís still learning to answer to it."

The adults watched Tiffany and Cumulus play for a moment. With a few days of decent, regular feeding, he was getting to be a lot healthier-looking dog; much of the scrawniness and scraggliness had disappeared. "They seem to get along pretty well together," Mike commented.

"Yeah, he followed me home the other day," Mark said. "A stray. Sure is a nice dog, though. It looks to me like heís been around people, a family dog, but was either lost or abandoned."

"He sure latched on to us in a hurry," Jackie said. "But heís Markís dog. When Mark is at work and Iím out in the shop, heís my constant companion, but as soon as Mark gets home, heís off like a shot."

Mike smiled. "It looks like youíre going to have a tough time separating him from Tiffany now. Because weíre moving out in the country, weíre kind of thinking about getting her a dog, to."

Somewhere along the way, Tiffany had found a stick, and was throwing it for Cumulus. She yelled, "Cumulus, fetch," and the dog bounded off after it.

"No doubt about it," Jackie commented, "heís been around kids. He likes kids."

"Mark," Kirsten said, "you realize that youíve just made life more difficult for us."

"Howís that?" Mark asked.

"She wants a dog so bad she can taste it," Mike said, sitting down. "We really havenít had space for a dog till now, but things are going to be different. I suppose now weíre going to have to get her one."

"Weíve kept cats," Mark said, "but we havenít had a dog until he came along. He makes me realize what Iíve been missing."

"So is he going to be the start of your dog team?" Mike asked.

"I donít know," Mark said. "He does keep me thinking about it, though."

"What dog team is this?" Jackie wanted to know. She didnít like the sound of something there.

"We were over at the café a few days ago," Mike explained. "We were talking about that TV special on Susan Butcher and the Iditarod, and that running a dog team sounded kind of like fun."

"Iíve kicked it around," Mark admitted. "Mostly, I keep thinking that it might be a way to get some exercise over the winter, rather than just staying in by the fire."

"It doesnít seem like a lot of exercise, just riding around on a sled," Kirsten commented.

"From what I can make out, thereís a lot more to it than that," Mark said. "Steering, pushing the sled yourself, just keeping things going. It sounds like it might be sort of interesting."

"So, youíre going to get a bunch of dogs and run the Iditarod?" Kirsten asked. Sheíd seen the TV show, too.

"No," Mark said. "I think thatís pushing it a little too far. If I decide to do it, itíll be maybe three dogs, just to run up and down the trail a little for the fun of it."

"Two or three dogs?" Jackie said, a little alarmed. "I mean one dog, all right, but I know you. The next thing, itíll be ten or twelve dogs, and youíll be pricing tickets to Alaska."

"No Iditarod," Mark replied. "I promise. I mean, I kind of like cold weather, but itís possible to get ridiculous, too."

"Says the man who owns both of the largest telescopes for a hundred miles," Jackie said.

"Just remember who ground the mirror of the biggest one," Mark said. "If youíll recall, it was you, not me."

"Thatís different."

"Not really, but remember it was you who brought up the comparison. Besides, I havenít made my mind up, yet."

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