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 9

June, 1987

After a three-day weekend, the new house was starting to show signs of getting into shape for Mike and Kirsten, although there were still dozens of boxes strewn around the living room, stacked in the front hall, all awaiting unpacking. Mike had already touched off one big bonfire of used boxes, just to clear out some walking area, and they were beginning to see that there was a new home under all the clutter.

The bad part of having a three-day weekend to move was that they were bone-tired when Tuesday rolled around. Tuesday was the big day around the Record-Herald, and any given week they were busier than they wanted to be on Tuesdays. What made it worse was that Webb didnít like to screw up the normal mailing schedule, so normally, the plan was to gut it out and stick to the normal timetable, accepting the loss of Monday. Usually, the staff put in extra time late the previous week to give them a running start following three-day weekends, but Mike and Kirsten had been so busy with preparing for their move that they were even further behind than they would have been any other week.

The pile of mail that Tuesday morning was huge; there was a lot to sort through. Kirsten found a stack three times its normal height, the collection of Saturday, Monday, and Tuesdayís mail. Only about one in three of the letters involved advertising, but all had to be gone through carefully.

She came across an envelope that contained a check and classified ad copy. The ad read, "Piano for sale, like new, console piano. Excellent condition, nothing down with good credit." There was a 1-800 phone number, and the check was drawn on an out-of-state bank.

Once upon a time, she would have just pitched a suspicious ad like that; the chances were good that it was a scam. But, a couple of times there had been complaints, and Webb hated to turn down money, so they had worked out a compromise. The classified ad file in the ad departmentís computer contained another ad, one the paper ran for free following every questionable ad: "Sound too good to be true? It probably is. We urge you to read Ďamazingí offers carefully. Never give your credit card number over the phone. For more information, contact the Better Business Bureau in Camden, 1-800-555-1212."

It had made a big cutback in the numbers of questionable ads. Kirsten smiled; sheíd seen ads from these bozos before. Apparently, they hadnít gotten the message yet. On the margin of the ad she wrote "Pd Ė use BBB ad following," and put it in her out basket.

The next envelope was marked "Legal Advertising," and came from the Fish and Wildlife Service in Minneapolis. This also was nothing new; they got a legal from the Fish and Wildlife Service about four times a year. She opened the copy and read the cover sheet: "Ad must be at least 4 inches wide, type not less than 12 point."

"Bunch of ripoff artists," she snorted. The ad would have to be charged by word count, since it was a legal, but putting it in a box with that type size would mean that theyíd get less than the normal space rate. Before she even looked at the ad, she wrote in the margin of the cover sheet, "2 col, 12 pt. Squeeze." That would help a little. That done, she glanced at the ad itself, and involuntarily cringed when she saw the headline:

Gibsonís Water Snake

She really didnít want to read any further, but sort of wondered why the Fish and Wildlife Service was sending out this ad at all, so she skimmed on:

The U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, (Service), has set deadlines for receipt of comments and requests for public hearings concerning a May 27, 1987 Federal Register proposal to declare an interim area of critical habitat in Spearfish County for the Gibsonís water snake (Nerodia sipedon gibsoni), an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The revised deadlines require that requests for public hearings be received by July 14, 1987, and all comments and related information be received by July 24, 1987. Requests for public hearings and comments from all interested parties should be submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Endangered Species, 1 Federal Drive, Minneapolis, Minnesota, telephone 612/555-3267. Additional information can be obtained from the above address.

While Kirsten may have been in the advertising business, sheíd been around newspapers even longer than Mike, and this had the smell of something he might be interested in. She got up from her desk with difficulty; the baby and all the work this weekend was making her back really hurt bad this morning, but once she was on her feet, it was only a few steps into Mikeís office. "Mike," she asked. "Have you ever heard of a Gibsonís water snake?"

"I wouldnít know a Gibsonís water snake if it crawled out of the bathtub drain in front of me," he laughed. "What makes you ask that?"

"We got this in the mail this morning," Kirsten said, handing Mike the ad copy.

He read it through quickly and commented, "I never even heard of a Gibsonís water snake, but thatís fast work for the Fish and Wildlife Service. I wonder whatís happening."

"Did you get a release on this from them?" Kirsten asked.

"I got something from the Fish and Wildlife Service, but most of what they send out doesnít concern us much, so I pitched it," he said. "Maybe Iíd better dig through the wastebasket."

Kirsten went back to her desk, taking the ad copy with her, while Mike dragged the wastebasket around the corner of the desk. It took a couple of minutes to find the envelope from the Fish and Wildlife Service, still unopened. He opened it quickly, with a pair of scissors, but inside found nothing but another copy of the same legal ad. He wrinkled his nose. "Typical government. No 800 number," he said to himself. He knew if he called them, heíd spend half an hour on hold, and not come out any wiser than heíd been before. What he would be was half an hour further behind schedule, and facing a bitch session from Webb about the phone bill.

The next best thing was to call Don Kutzley, over at the city office. That was almost as bad, since Kutzley was a talker, but at least it was a free call, and he was going to have to be contacted this morning on a couple other issues, anyway. Might as well get it over with, he thought, dialing the phone.

The snake was about the fifth item on the list of things that Mike wanted to talk to Kutzley about, and he was pretty tired of hearing about the latest twists in state and federal politics by the time they got that far. "Hey, Don, last thing," Mike said, butting into a discussion of the Iran-Contra politics. "We got a legal this morning from the Fish and Wildlife Service, saying that they want to declare some area in Spearfish County a critical area for some endangered species of snake. You know anything about that?"

"Letís see, I got a letter on that somewhere," the city manager said. Mike could hear papers rustle while Kutzley made more comments about Oliver North. "OK, here it is," the city manager said. "You got the public notice, right?"

"Yeah. Something about a deadline for public hearings."

"Thereís a cover letter," Kutzley said. "You get that?"

"No, I didnít," Mike said. "Just the legal."

"Hereís all it says," Kutzley told Mike, "ĎDr. Frank Gerjevic of Athens University has notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that a tentative identification of a Gibsonís water snake has been made in the Spearfish Lake area. The Gibsonís water snake is a critically endangered species, a subspecies of the northern water snake. A critical interest area is being proposed for segments of Spearfish County, which includes the City of Spearfish Lake.í Brilliant deduction, huh?"

"Took a real genius to figure that out," Mike agreed.

"It goes on about public comments and public hearings and like that, same as in the legal."

"Well, that tells me more than I had," Mike admitted. "You going to do anything about it?"

"I suppose I ought to drop them a note, and find out what this is all about, but it probably doesnít mean diddly."

"Probably," Mike said. "Let me know if you find out anything. How in the hell do you spell ĎGerjevicí?"

As expected, getting Kutzley to quit talking state and national politics took a while; finally, Mike had to break in, "Hey, Don, I got a call on another line. Iíll get back with you."

It had been a waste of time all around; there was no story on the other issues, and Kutzley hadnít been able to add much at all to what Mike already knew. But, it was more than heíd started with.

Mike frowned at the few words of the legal, and his couple of notes from his conversation with Kutzley. It was going to be tough to make a story out of them, but it was the sort of thing that at least had to be mentioned, in case it turned into something. Mike swung around to the computer, opened a new file, tagged it "SNAKE," and beat out a brief story.

"Letís see, whatís next?" he said to himself. "Road Commission, I guess." It would be boring as sin, but he realized that maybe heíd better give some attention to the Road Commission now, so heíd be in a better position to wallop them over the condition of the road, if it came to that. That damn thing was getting worse every day. No wonder Mark and Jackie called it "Busted Axle Road."

*   *   *

"So how did the shoot go Saturday?" Harper asked as McMullen sat down on the couch by the window.

"Slicker than swamp scum," the president of the Defenders of Gaea replied. "We could have gone with the first take, it was so quick. Iíve looked at the tape, and itís just beautiful. Weíre going to make a mint on it. Not only is that gal so beautiful that it takes your breath away, but sheís a real pro. Thereís a temper under that pretty skin of hers, though."

"Howís that?" Harper asked, only mildly curious.

"Oh, some wisenheimer from Hollywood Tonight, or somewhere, wanted her to do an interview at her summer cottage, and she told him if he ever showed up in Spearfish Lake, sheíd have her relatives feed him to the muskies."

"Yeah," Harper said, "some of these kids come out of places that are really out in the backwoods, kind of inbred . . . what was that town you said she was from?"

"Spearfish Lake, I think," McMullen said. He could see wheels turning in Harperís head.

"Spearfish Lake, Spearfish Lake," Harper said. "I know Iíve seen that name, somewhere recently. Let me think . . . some damn proposal that came through a week or two ago."

That set McMullen to thinking, as well. "Something about a snake," he finally managed to contribute.

"Oh, yeah," Harper said, dragging it out slowly. "I think I remember." He flipped his intercom. "Mollie, would you bring the file of funding requests from the last month in here?" he said.

It took a few minutes to find the letter from Dr. Gerjevic of Athens University, requesting funding for television survey of the sewers in the town of Spearfish Lake, looking for a snake that could be a specimen of a previously thought extinct species of water snake. The need was urgent, as the town was considering a major rebuilding of its sewer system, and the change in habitat caused by the rebuilding could be damaging to future samples and possibly the future of the species. There was a picture of the snake, and a photostat of a local newspaper story about the sewer system.

"I remember looking at this, now," Harper said. "If this were in New York or Massachusetts or California, we could turn this into another snail darter, and make a mint," he said. "But upper Midwest? They eat snakes out there."

"Yeah," McMullen said, "but if itís Jenny Easton involved, it isnít a Midwest issue anymore."

Harper was considering the possibilities rapidly. "If we can beat the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy to it . . . God, Jenny Easton on point for us . . . "

"Maybe more than just on point," McMullen interrupted. "She might even have a chunk of change to throw at something that involves her old home town . . . "

"Yeah, but how do we get to her?"

"Her agent told me she can be damn tough to handle," McMullen said. "After that bit about feeding that producer to the fish in little pieces, I believe him. Maybe weíd better try it through him."

"You had Heather work on him, right?"

"Yeah," McMullen said. "Iíll see if I can get her to go down on him again."

*   *   *

Negative results.

Pam had worked hard every day since sheíd brought her stuff back from the dorm in Athens, and even after ten days, it was getting dull, not finding anything. At least it was good exercise, she thought. And she got to sleep in a little.

After getting up and ready, she got out into the swamps about nine or ten, when the sun was getting up a little, and the snakes were coming out. It wasnít as if she saw a lot of snakes, maybe three or four an hour on the average, but every snake that she saw was clearly not a Gibsonís water snake, and the only thing that became clear from her daily forays into the swamps was that if there were any sipedon gibsonis to be found there, there were darn few of them. But, for an endangered species, that was to be expected.

It was possible that they might have a range of only a few acres, but it had to be concluded if that were the case, those few acres had to be someplace close to the sewer system. That limited her search area to a couple of square miles, which doesnít sound like much Ė but for one person, hunting for a needle in a haystack, a couple square miles was an almost impossible figure to work with.

The one specimen had turned up in the sewer system, so she put a lot of time in there, using Josh and Dannyís improved periscope, which had half of a busted pair of binoculars mounted on the stick, to get a closer look up the sewer pipes. Pam spent a couple of hours each day peering down storm drain grates all through the south side of Spearfish Lake, and only once did she see a snake, which was minding its own business. She spent more than an hour on her knees, peering at the snake through the periscope, before she was finally able to conclude that not only was it not a Gibsonís water snake, it wasnít any kind of a water snake, but a run-of-the-mill garter snake.

It had to look strange, she thought. She couldnít help but wonder what people must think, to see her trudging from one storm drain to another, shoving the periscope down through the grating and peering down it for a moment before going on to the next one. Surprisingly few people asked her what she was doing, and that worried her a little.

She was peering down through the periscope that Thursday when she thought she heard someone approaching her, but she was more intent on studying the image in the eyepiece. Something off in the dim distance looked vaguely like a snake, and the more she looked at it, the more she doubted that it was Ė probably a stick, or something. It hadnít moved in some time, but that was not inconsistent with a snake. She had about made up her mind that it was a stick when she heard a loud voice behind her: "What the hell are you and that fairy professor of yours trying to do? Grab all the credit?"

It was Pacobelís voice. "What do you mean?" she said as she stood up, pulling the periscope from the sewer.

"I mean this," Pacobel said, shoving the Record-Herald in front of her.

"I donít know what youíre talking about," she said, taking the paper. There was the story, in the bottom corner of the front page:

Wildlife Service
plans to study
rare water snake

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that it is seeking public comment and possible requests for a public hearing over whether an area in Spearfish County should be declared a "critical interest area" for a threatened snake species, the Gibsonís water snake.

The Fish and Wildlife Service office in Minneapolis said that Dr. Frank Gerjevic of Athens University had made a tentative identification of a snake collected in the Spearfish Lake area as a Gibsonís water snake, which is considered an endangered species.

The announcement last week by the Fish and Wildlife Service does not specify the areas in Spearfish County that would be placed in a "critical interest area."

Persons having any comments should contact the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Minneapolis.

"I donít know anything about it," Pam told Pacobel truthfully. "Thereís a grant coming from the Fish and Wildlife Service, but this is the first thing Iíve heard about a critical interest area."

"God damn it," Pacobel snorted, "you and that swish Gerjevic wouldnít have known diddly about that snake if I hadnít brought it to you, so why the hell is it that heís the one that gets the credit?"

"John, I donít know anything about it," Pam protested. "I mean, I suppose Frank signed the letter that went to the Fish and Wildlife Service, but thatís all I know."

"Like I thought," Pacobel snorted. "He wants to take all the credit for himself. Well, the hell with it. If heís going to pull that stunt, Iím going to wash my hands of it. I really didnít give a shit about the stinking snake, anyway. Donít come bothering me about it again." He turned and stalked off.

Pam smiled: and who was trying to steal all the credit?

It was hardly a loss. If he was mad at her, he wasnít likely to make a pest of himself hitting on her.

One worry taken care of.

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