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 6

Even though the days had been nice, the water in the swamp was still pretty cold, and Pam Appleton could only stand to slog around in it for so long before it started to get to her.

She’d been back home for almost ten days, now; she’d only been marking time in Athens, hoping something would turn up to keep her going over the summer. There’d been a project down in Texas she’d been hoping to get funding for, but it just hadn’t come through, and it had begun to look like her summer project was going to be the grill specialist in a Burger Bummer. Messing around in the swamps around Spearfish Lake looking for snakes was much more preferable. The grant hadn’t come through, yet, but Dr. Gerjevic was working on it, and they’d decided that a little preliminary investigation couldn’t hurt. If she could turn up a population of Gibson’s water snakes in the interim, it might not only mean a grant, but a project that could carry her a long way. It hadn’t taken much to convince her.

She slid off her waders and shivered; the cold swamp water had soaked into her very bones. It was time to go home, fix a cup of coffee, and slip into the tub, with the water as hot as she could stand it, and try to soak up a little warmth like a snake in the sun.

As she drove into town, she went past Spearfish Lake Appliance. The sign, "HOT TUBS AND SPAS" sounded especially good to her. In fact, she could see that someone was loading a redwood hot tub onto the truck, so someone was going to have a nice experience. As cold as she was, it would sure be nice to soak her bones in a hot tub, but she knew she’d have to settle for the bathtub.

It was good to get home. Her folks were both at work, so she had the house to herself even though it was near lunchtime. She knew she’d really rather have good coffee from the coffeepot, but it would take time to heat, so she nuked some hot water in the microwave while she peeled out of her wet clothes. She was nearly naked when the bell dinged that the water was hot; she spooned some instant coffee into the cup and headed for the bathroom, where the water there was already running in the tub.

It was almost too hot – in other words, just right. She set her coffee on the lip of the tub, set the phone on the floor beside it, took off the rest of her clothes, and slid into the water. If she scrunched down and folded her legs a little, she could sink down to where only her head was out of the water. It felt good. She lay there, just reveling in the warmth, while she organized her thoughts before she called Dr. Gerjevic.

It was almost painful to do it, but she slid herself a little upright, took a sip of coffee, then picked up the phone and dialed the herpetology lab at Athens.

It took a minute to get Gerjevic on the phone. "So, are you having any luck?" Gerjevic asked.

"A little bit," Pam said. "I spent another three hours out this morning, and I actually saw a sipedon sipedon, just lying out in the sun. He was a little torpid; I don’t think he’s been awake long."

"That’s progress of a sort," Gerjevic said. "At least we know the sipedons are stirring, so it would be reasonable to assume that a colony of sipedon gibsonis living in the marshes would be stirring, too."

"That’s what I thought," Pam said. "That’s the first one I’ve seen. That water is still pretty cold."

"Any progress on the sewer system angle?"

"Afraid not," Pam said. "I talked to some of the men who work on the sewers, and they say they see snakes once in a while, but not a one of them would know a garter snake from a boa constrictor. I showed them what a Nerodia sipedon looks like, and they promised to try and catch anything they see like that if one should come along."

"Maybe you’ll get lucky," Gerjevic commented.

Holding the phone carefully, Pam slid down in the water a little. "Maybe," she admitted. "Of course, anything we get from them is going to probably have been whacked with a shovel two or three times, but it might still be identifiable."

"It’s a pity, but you’re probably right."

"Yeah," Pam agreed. People were people. Most people, however misguided, didn’t like snakes, and she knew it. "Then, I got to thinking at least some snakes might get washed down to the sewage treatment plant, so I went down there to poke around. The plant superintendent says he’s never seen any snakes in the system, but he says that there’s a macerator on the intake side of the plant, so if he did they were in real little pieces."

"Well, good thinking, anyway," Gerjevic said. "It looks like we’re back to TV cameras."

"A little good news there," Pam said. "Mr. Kennesaw, the sewer system manager, says there’s some lines he’d like to inspect with a camera. He doesn’t have a lot in the budget for it, but maybe he can come up with some matching funds if we’re willing to share videotapes."

"Good thinking, Pam. Every little bit helps."

"What progress are you making with a grant?" she asked. "Local match isn’t worth much if we don’t have the basic funding."

"I talked to the Fish and Wildlife Service in Minneapolis again this morning," Gerjevic said. "After going over that specimen forwards and backwards, the same way we did, they come up with the same conclusion we did. In other words, it might be a sipedon gibsoni, and it might not be. The only way we’ll know is to find other specimens."

"We keep coming back to the same problem," she said.

"Yes," Gerjevic said, "but it’s an interesting enough question that they’re giving it some consideration. I doubt very much that we’ll get everything we ask for, but we should be able to get partial funding from them."

That was good news! "How partial?" she asked.

"No way of telling," Gerjevic said. "Maybe fifty percent."

"I wish it was more," Pam said. It was a last minute request, and they’d cut it pretty tight. Fifty percent funding on that request would pay for the administrative costs and a reasonable stipend for her, even a little bit to hire some local help if it was needed. Or, it could pay for a reasonable program of television inspection of the sewers, if Mr. Kennesaw pitched in. It wouldn’t pay for both, and Pam knew it. "With fifty percent funding, we’ve got less than a fifty percent chance of settling the question," she said flatly.

"I’m aware of that," Gerjevic said, a little prissy. "I’ve started writing to some of the advocacy organizations with our problem, in hopes that we might find some funding there. People like the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, Defenders of Gaea, that sort of thing. If we can get one of them interested, perhaps the Fish and Wildlife Service might be a little more liberal."

Pam shook her head. "I just wish I had something a little more positive to give you for ammunition," she said. "I can poke around here for another week or two, but if we don’t get some sort of funding, I’m going to have to get a job for the summer."

"That’s ammunition of itself," Gerjevic said. "Especially with your local knowledge."

"Well, I’ll keep plugging away," Pam said. "It’s supposed to be warm for the next few days, so maybe the snakes will get moving a little more."

"That’s the spirit, Pam," Gerjevic said. "Give me a call the first of the week, and sooner if you find something. Don’t be afraid to call me at home if you do."

Pam hung up the phone, took another sip of coffee, and slipped a little lower in the tub. It would be so much easier if she could turn up at least a little positive evidence! Extra hands would help, especially this soon, when she was trying to find anything at all. There weren’t a lot of extra hands available, except maybe for Pacobel, and it would be difficult to ask him.

She’d been avoiding him, and for good reason. There was one way she could get his interest, and she knew it, but she’d been down that road with him before. She’d gotten over it and didn’t want to do it again. She’d been younger and more foolish then, and perhaps it had seemed like a good idea at the time.

On the other hand, perhaps she could dangle it in front of him a little, and manage to avoid going through with it. She was more experienced now; it might be possible. That might work.

She looked at the clock. He’d still be in class for a while, and then he’d have softball practice, maybe a game. Maybe the thing to do would be to make the initial opening where his running room would be limited. Maybe right at the end of the school day, in class time. Well, there’d be plenty of time to get around. The tub water was starting to get a little cool, anyway.

It seemed strange to be walking down the halls of the Spearfish Lake High School again. Pam had been away five years, and it was as if she’d never left. The kids were different, but the teachers were the same, the halls were the same, the posters on the wall not any different than she remembered. The kids were starting to get a little loose, now; there were only three weeks of school left for the summer – two for the seniors – and everybody was feeling summer coming.

Pacobel’s room hadn’t changed much, either. As luck would have it, it was the advanced biology class, and that gave her an even better idea on the spur of the moment.

"Well, Pam," Pacobel said, looking up from his stat sheets, "I’m surprised to see you here."

"I came back to run a preliminary survey for the Nerodia sipedon gibsoni study," she said, loud enough for the class to hear. "It looks like there’s a good chance it’s going to get funded, and I was sort of wondering if you had any kids who like snakes and would like to get involved in a real scientific project this summer. If the funding works out, we might even be able to find them some money."

Despite the fact that several of the kids were working on their projects, six or eight hands shot up, and a couple of boys – big kids who looked like football players – were even quicker than that, rushing right up to her. "That really was a sipedon gibsoni? Wow!" one of them said.

"You’ve seen it?" Pam asked.

"Mr. Pacobel had us try to identify it, about a month ago," the other one said.

Not surprising, Pam thought. Pacobel probably gave it to the kids to identify before he tried to do it himself, then claim the credit. It wouldn’t be the first time a teacher took the credit for a student’s work, and wouldn’t be the last. "You look familiar," Pam said. "Are you an Evachevski?"

"Danny," the taller of the two boys said.

"Thought so," she said. "I went out with Garth for a while. I guess we all know about Jennifer, but what’s Brandy up to?"

"She graduated from Michigan Tech this spring," Danny said. "She’s going to stay there and work on her master’s, in geology."

"That’s Brandy, always down to earth," Pam laughed. "Who’s your friend?"

"Oh, this is Josh Archer. He’s a sophomore."

Archer smiled. "You might remember my brother, John. He graduated a couple years ago."

Pam shook her head. "Don’t think so," she said. "I probably was a little ahead of him. Anyway, would you two like to go looking for snakes with me tomorrow?"

"Sure," Josh said, and Danny chorused agreement.

"Danny, you still live in the same place, don’t you?" Pam asked. He nodded, and she went on, "How about if I pick you two up at your place about nine?"

Pacobel broke in, "Don’t forget, you two, we’ve got to have that meeting on the haunted house plans for the Halloween party at 8:30 tomorrow morning, and we’ve got a lot of work to do."

"Shouldn’t take more than a couple hours," Danny said. "How about eleven, uh, Miss . . . "

"Pam Appleton. Call me Pam. Eleven might even work out better; it’ll give things a chance to warm up."

"Would you mind if I tagged along, Pam?" Pacobel asked.

She thought about it for a second. She’d almost brought it off under his nose, but he wasn’t likely to try anything funny with the boys along. It couldn’t hurt. "Sure," she said. "Bring your waders."

*   *   *

What with one thing and another, it was another week before Mark could get out with Cumulus for some serious training, even though he’d begun sooner.

He’d begun with trying to teach Cumulus the difference between "gee" and "haw" – right and left, respectively, in animal driving; although Mark had to call a guy down near Albany River who had a draft horse team to confirm it for himself. Mostly, the training at this point came when Mark and Cumulus went for their runs; Mark would yell "haw! Haw!" then turn to the left, with Cumulus following, then follow it with "gee! Gee!" and a right turn. Before very long, he had Cumulus turning on command, mostly proving to Mark that Cumulus was a smart dog. Or one so dumb that he didn’t realize that ignoring Mark would mean less work.

This Saturday morning, warm and nice, Mark took an old tire from the Cessna – probably one of the original tires, one that had been on the honeymoon trip he realized when he thought about it – and tied it to a rope leading from the harness he’d cobbled up for Cumulus. The dog wasn’t too crazy about the idea, but the drag wasn’t too bad on him, and they took it easy, running up and down the runway a couple of times, working on the commands a little. It took a bit of figuring and some work with a leash for Mark to get the dog to start on the command, "hike" – in other words, get moving, but Cumulus got the idea fairly quickly. Mark didn’t make it a long session, but realized he’d have to do it maybe two or three times a day, every day, for a while, just to reinforce those commands, and add about half a dozen others. It would take some patience, but he was a patient man, so that was no problem.

After a couple of trips up and down the runway, Mark decided that was enough for one session. He unhooked the tire from Cumulus and took the harness off, then gave him a quick pat and a treat.

They walked slowly up to the house. Cumulus hopped up on the couch on the porch for a nap; that had become his bed, since he much preferred having his bed there than in the nest in the hanger. Mark went inside and poured himself a glass of tea as Jackie came out of the bathroom. "You thinking about taking a tow this afternoon?" she asked.

"I don’t think so," Mark said. "It’s calm out there, and it just looks as flat as a ballerina’s chest. I don’t even want to think about flying until I see some indication of thermals moving through. No point in wasting a turn."

"Then what are you going to do this afternoon? Train the dog some more?"

"No, the grass on the airstrip seems to be getting pretty long, so I thought I’d run the tractor up and down it," Mark said.

"You ought to go down and clean up Mike and Kirsten’s yard," Jackie suggested. "Remember, he said he’s just got that little push mower. It’ll only take you half an hour or so."

"I suppose so," Mark said. "He’s got enough on his mind, right now. The only thing is, I think we want to tie Cumulus up on the yard side of the house while I’m mowing. I don’t want him chasing the tractor, and I don’t want him sticking his nose in the mower."

"How’d it go this morning?"

"Pretty good," Mark said, draining his glass. "He’s got gee and haw down pretty well, and he’s picking up on ‘hike’ and ‘whoa,’ and doesn’t mind towing the tire around. I don’t know if I can ask for much more at this stage."

"What’s the next step? More dogs?" Jackie still wasn’t very thrilled with the idea.

"No, actually, the next step is just to work on the commands some more, and try to find someone who really knows something about dog teams. I can only get so much out of books, and I want to talk to someone who knows what he’s doing before I go much further than that."

"I remember that guy out in the North Cascades we visited, but I’ve never have heard of anyone running dogs around here," Jackie commented.

"George Lindquist says that there used to be two or three guys around who did it thirty or forty years ago," Mark said. "He and Mike and I have been asking around to see if any of them are still alive."

"You find one of them," she said, "make sure he gives you useful advice, not just good-old-days’ stories."

That was sage advice, something to think about, Mark thought. "Good point," he said. "Well, if I get hopping, I ought to be able to get Mike and Kirsten’s place mowed before lunch."

Cumulus howled as Mark drove out of the driveway on the tractor; he didn’t want to be left behind, it made Mark feel a little sorry to be leaving him at home on a chain.

He was a little surprised to see a truck from Spearfish Lake Appliance sitting at what would be Mike and Kirsten’s house. Wondering if something was the matter, Mark stopped the tractor and got off to investigate. It proved to be Mike with Gil Evachevski, owner of the appliance store. Gil was messing around with the plumbing for a new hot tub in one of the garage bays, while Mike was carrying boxes out of the truck and upstairs one by one. "Hi, there," Mark said to the latter. "I didn’t realize you’d signed the papers yet."

"Haven’t," Mike said. "Binky knows the timing is kind of tight, what with Kirsten’s due date and all, so she’s letting us get a head start."

"Besides," Gil said from the heater box on the hot tub, "I wanted to get finished hooking this up, and take a look at that dryer. I think it’s just a bad element."

"All sorts of activity out here," Mark said. "I came by to do your lawn."

"Yeah," Mike said. "I was going to ask you about that last week, but somehow the discussion never got around to it. I suppose I’ll have to get a decent lawn tractor sooner or later, but would it be too much trouble for you to keep doing it for a while? I’d be glad to pay you for it."

"No problem," Mark said. "I’ve been doing it for years, now." He looked over at Gil and went on, "Adding a hot tub, huh?"

"Yeah," Mike said. "We’ve always wanted one, but we’ve never had the space till now."

"Always wanted to try one of those sometime," Mark said, mostly to Gil as he walked over to check it out. "I never quite got around to it with everything else going on. I always figured that I’d wind up wanting to buy one, and they’re a little on the steep side."

"They’re steep till you get hooked on them," Gil admitted with a smirk. "Then they’re cheap at twice the price."

"Well, you’re welcome to come down and try ours out some time," Mike said. "We’d be glad to have you."

Mark smiled. "I’ll bounce it off Jackie," he said. "If I can get her hooked on a hot tub and wanting one, then she won’t have a leg to stand on if I want to spend money on a dog team."

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