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 10

One day, twenty years before, when Heather Sanford was nine, her mother turned to her father and said, "What are we going to do about Heather sucking her thumb?"

Most children give up sucking their thumb at age two or so, but Heather had never totally broken herself of it. It was a matter that caused her mother a lot of concern, but didnít bother her father quite as much, although he agreed with his wife that it wasnít a good habit. However, since this was possibly the thousandth time that his wife had brought up the subject in the last five years or so, he was a little tired of the issue, so he decided to throw a curve ball back. "Look on the bright side," heíd said. "If she keeps in practice, in a few years, sheís going to make some young man VERY happy."

It took a few moments for Heatherís mother to figure out what he was talking about, and when she did, she was less than pleased. But, she didnít bring the subject up again for almost two weeks, which pleased her husband.

Under constant pressure from her mother, Heather gave up sucking her thumb, at least while she was awake, when she was around twelve. However, her subconscious kept the habit going, and even as she was pushing thirty, she often slept with her thumb in her mouth. The constant exercise, sometimes several hours a night, gave her tongue and jaw muscles as strong as the average politicianís.

However, when Heather was twelve, something else entered her life: Henry David Thoreau and Walden Pond.

Living not too far from Concord, Massachusetts, her family sometimes went to the beach at the state park, up at one end of Walden Pond for a couple of hours. Her father once told Heather that it was a very famous place, and when she discovered Thoreauís "Walden" at age twelve, she thought that she might learn why it was famous.

It was a tough read for a twelve year old, even one who was a little precocious, but it was clear to her early on that the Walden Pond of the 1840s had little to do with the Walden Pond of 1970. She was sad about it, in a way, but wasnít sure why.

She read the book again when she was fifteen; read it carefully, more capable of comprehending it. Several times in the summer of her fifteenth year, she rode her bicycle over to Walden Pond, not to go swimming, though that was what she told her mother, but to walk where Thoreau had walked, sit where he sat, and try to feel what he must have felt. The best she could manage was a sickness at wondering what Thoreau would have thought if he were to rouse from his grave of over a century. Old Henry wouldnít be very happy, she realized; things had changed a lot, and changed for the worse, and from that realization came a determination to try and do something about it.

Her fatherís prophecy didnít come true until the spring of her twenty-first year, when there also came a chance to do a part in turning back the deterioration of the earth she had promised old Henryís ghost to do something about.

By that spring, Heather had blossomed into a young woman of medium height, with hair that indeterminate shade thatís right between redheaded and blonde, and freckles on her face, which she never covered with makeup. She didnít have exactly what you would call a bikini body, but she wasnít so heavy that a bikini would have made her body look uninteresting, if she ever wore one, which she only did rarely. Her green eyes blazed with a fierce intensity as she carried a picket sign, day after day, outside the Old Brook Nuclear Power Plant.

There had been protests outside Old Brook for years while the plant had been under construction. While Heather knew that the reactor would be the devil unchained if anything ever went wrong, her concern was really more with what would go wrong even if everything went right. The coolant water from the plant would raise the temperature of the coastal river by several degrees, and even of the coastal waters by a few, and there was no telling what damage would be caused to an established natural habitat. Since carrying a picket sign was about all she could do, she was out there regularly.

The organizers of the protest were amateurs, and they had made a pain in the butt of themselves, but hadnít done much to slow the fast-approaching date the plant would go on line. They had had help from anti-nuclear organizations around the country, with no great effect, and were approaching despair, when someone managed to interest the president of the Defenders of Gaea.

When Dale McMullen came to town, he came like an avenging angel. All of a sudden, the protests at the plant werenít just a few bored lines buried in the local news; almost before they were aware of it, after years of effort, they were getting national coverage. Not a lot, but enough to give them heart.

One afternoon, there was a rally of the protesters, leading up to a march on the plant to be held the next day. With a warm glow following listening to the heated speech that McMullen had made, Heather and a few others of the locals joined McMullen over coffee for a strategy session.

One thing made her curious, and asked McMullen: "After all the work weíve done, without getting anywhere, whyíd you come here?"

"Thatís not easy to answer," McMullen said. "We canít be everywhere at once. We have to pick battles we can win."

"You mean, we really can stop this plant?" she brightened.

"I wish I could promise you that we will," he said. "We may, and we may not. Stopping it would be a victory, of course, but this close to completion, as much money has been put in there, we may not be able to. But, if we can make enough stink here, a dozen, two dozen, a hundred nuclear power plants that are on the drawing board will never get off the ground. Thatís a real victory."

"But it doesnít stop Old Brook," she said.

"Youíre right," he said. "There will be a loss if we canít. But think of the big picture. What kind of harm will it do if those hundred nuclear power plants go on line?"

The thought left her dumbfounded for a moment, then perspective crawled in. "I think I see," she said slowly.

"Thatís the kind of battle that we fight in the Defenders of Gaea," McMullen explained. "We just donít have the means to fight every battle, so we have to pick the ones that we can get the most out of by fighting. Now, if we have a big march tomorrow, we can possibly do some good. If things get a little out of hand, and we get good national TV coverage, we can do a lot of good. We canít afford to be seen starting a riot, or anything like that, but one thing we learned back in the sixties: if it ainít on TV, it ainít news."

"You mean youíre looking for a riot?" she said.

"No, I didnít say that," he said. "But if one were to happen, like the police getting out of hand like they did in Chicago in í68, then our message would get through a lot better."

"The local cops arenít going to start a riot," she said. "Theyíre with us. We even had some out there with us today, out of uniform, of course, but not spies, or anything."

"It would be nice if it were true," he counseled, "but donít believe it. Cops have their own reason for doing things."

"Theyíre with us, I tell you."

"Iíll believe it when I see it," he smiled.

There was good light the next afternoon, one of the reasons the time was selected, to provide better lighting for the video cameras if anything were to happen. The march to Old Brook filled both lanes of the road, a quarter mile long, people carrying signs and singing We Shall Overcome, a good protest song in any situation. At the head of the demonstration walked four local policemen, in uniform, but wearing arm bands of the movement, and not too far behind them was a redhead/blonde with vivid green eyes, who had a broad grin on her face every time McMullen looked her way.

There was a confrontation, nose to nose, at the plant gate. Angry words were exchanged; nightsticks were brandished; fingers pushed "Record" buttons on video cameras; a nightstick was swung, and then another. Somebody threw a rock; somebody threw a punch, and suddenly the main gate of the Old Brook Nuclear Power Station resembled a bar brawl. The guard shack was set on fire, but the gates held.

McMullen was laying low in a motel room across a state line a few hours later. Heíd managed to avoid the brunt of the fight, and it was clear that he hadnít been an instigator of the riot, but the videos of cops nightsticking it out with other cops over the plant led three networks.

There came a knocking on the door. Well, even King had to go to jail sometime, he thought, but just think of how that man made out. He got up and answered the door.

It was Heather, with a black eye, a bruise on her face, and an even bigger grin. "They told me you wanted to see me," she said.

"I did, indeed," McMullen said. "Was that your doing, today?"

"Well, sorta," she admitted. "I went and had a talk with one of the guys I know on the police force, and sort of told them what you said."

"And he agreed to do it?"

"No, he laughed at me." The grin vanished.

"Then, Heather," McMullen asked, "how did you get them to do that?"

She stammered for a moment before she managed to get it out. "He said that Iíd . . . uh, have to use my mouth on him, if you know what I mean, to get him to."

"And you did?"

She nodded shyly. "Him, and his buddies," she said finally. "It was disgusting, but like you said, you have to look at the big picture. It was worth it if we can stop all those other nuclear plants."

That stopped McMullen in his tracks. The implications were obvious. If she was that good . . . that dedicated . . . then there were places where the Defenders of Gaea could put a talent like hers to good use. He thought fast; she was going to have to be approached the right way.

"Heather," he said, "thereís often things that we have to do that we donít like to do, if weíre going to keep Gaea a living creature. Iím proud of you for doing what took, for Gaeaís sake. You sound like a real Defender of Gaea to me. In addition to your heroism here, youíve been a hell of an organizer, and the Defenders can use you. Howíd you like to work as a special agent out of our California office?"

*   *   *

"Hey, Mike," George Lindquist said down at the Spearfish Lake Café the next morning, "You still interested in those guys who used to run dogsleds around here?"

"Yeah," Mike said, "you hear of one?"

"I found one," George explained. "It took some asking around. You still want a story on him?"

"Who is it?" Mark asked.

"Old guy over in Warsaw," George explained. "Must be close to eighty. Worked in the mill, but he ran a trap line on the side for maybe twenty years, all with a dog team, and gave it up about the time snow machines got popular. Jim Horton. You know him?"

"The Jim Horton whoís on the village council?" Mike asked. Lindquist nodded, and Mike went on, "Sure, I know him. Heís in the book."

"What book is that?" George asked.

"Oh, right after the Warsaw fire, I got the wild hair to write a book about the fire and sell it, so I spent a lot of time interviewing people involved with the fire. Let me tell you, we tend to remember the firemen, and Bud Ellsberg and the railroad hauling in all those fire departments on flatcars when the road bridge was out in the middle of that snowstorm, but there were a lot of unsung heroes I never found out about until after it was too stale for the newspaper."

"Jim was one of them?" Lindquist asked.

"You bet," Mike said. "Like I said, just one of many."

"Well, donít leave us hanging," Mark said, putting down his coffee. "What did he do?"

Mike shook his head, then realized that he might as well tell the whole story. "About a day into the fire, about the time that the main plant started burning, theyíd pumped the water tower dry, and were running straight off the village pumps. Well, Jim had his head screwed on, and realized that theyíd been going wide open for a while, and that maybe heíd better check on them. He discovered that the biggest pump, an old one built back around the turn of the century, had bearings that were running red hot. Well, Jim knew that they didnít have enough water to begin with, and if they lost that pump, theyíd lose half of what little they had. To make a long story short, he spent most of the next two days on his belly with an oil can in his hand, trying to keep lubricant on those bearings and the pump going, knowing all the while that if it seized up while it was running, there could be impeller parts coming through the pump casing right where he was lying."

"Wow," Mark said. Heíd been a paratrooper, and knew a little about courage. Jumping out of a plane was one thing; spending two days straight in a situation like that was something different. "It didnít blow up on him, I take it."

"No," Mike said. "Funny thing about that, though. After they got the fire pretty well out, and the water tower pumped full again, Jim saw that he could finally shut the pump down. So, he did, then went home and slept for a day or so, then decided to go back and see if he could fix whatever was wrong. He threw the switch, and nothing happened. The pump was locked up tight. It never turned again; they scrapped it the next spring. They lost enough of the town as it was, and they could have lost all of it, if it hadnít been for Jim keeping that pump on itís last legs going for as long as it did."

"I never heard about that," Lindquist said.

"Lots of people never heard about it," Mike said. "Thereís probably not a dozen people, even in Warsaw, who know about it. Thereís lots of stories like that. Most people around here never heard of the girl from Lordston who broke her back trying to keep the D&O train going, and a retired fireman from Coldwater got out of his wheelchair Ė no kidding Ė to play a key part in her rescue. That whole story was an epic in itself, but I never heard about it until it was too stale for the Record-Herald. Thatís why I decided to do the book."

"Did you finish it?" Lindquist asked.

"Yeah," Mike said. "I sent it off to maybe a dozen publishers, and never got a nibble. ĎNot enough national interest,í one of them said, so I finally said the hell with it."

"Iíd love to read it some time," George said. "Do you still have it?"

"Iíve got a manuscript, and Iíve got it on disk," Mike said. "Unfortunately, the disks are formatted for Apple, and I donít have one of those anymore."

"Iíve got a conversion program," Mark offered. "Iíd kind of like to read it myself."

"Youíre probably not the only one," the historian commented. "We donít have a lot of money in the society, but Iíll bet we could sell a few hundred copies locally, if we were to be able to get someone to back us for printing. That might be a project I could take to the Donna Clark foundation, maybe."

"Interesting thought," Mike said. "It never occurred to me. Itíd be nice to see it in print. Iíve got just about the only photos of the fire, too."

"I knew that," George said.

"Howíd you come by them?" Mark asked.

"I took them," Mike said. "I took two still cameras and a video camera with me, rode up in the caboose on the second run to Warsaw, shot up all the film I had, got more, and shot it up, too." He didnít mention that he got the extra film by running into Pictorís Drugstore while it was on fire, and essentially stealing it. Heíd always considered that had been one of the dumber things heíd done as a reporter. "Biggest story Iíve ever covered," he went on. "Got two state awards out of it, and it was nominated for a Pulitzer."

That was as far as Mike was going to blow his horn on the matter, even though heíd been pretty proud of a story of his own that never made it into the book, much less the paper.

Heíd gotten back to Spearfish Lake in the evening hours, and he and Webb and Kirsten and the staff who could make it into the office had thrown together a special issue of the Record-Herald. Heíd heard that Bud Ellsberg was considering a run down to Camden, and when the train left in the morning, with all the available railroad engines except a little industrial switcher and an ancient steamer, to break through the heavy drifts, Mike and the flats for the Record-Herald had been riding in the cab of the second engine. Mike had been able to have a partial press run printed and loaded back aboard the train before it left Camden, carrying a boxcar load of foam-making chemicals.

That special issue was an instant collectorís item, and while Mike had waited on the printer, heíd sold some photos to the Camden Press and the videotape to one of the Camden TV stations Ė the one that hadnít sent a reporter to the fire. The joker the other TV station sent was scooped by three days, and the last Mike heard, that reporter was reading hog futures on some 200-watt radio station somewhere. A clip from Mikeís video made the national news, and his photos made the Associated Press.

Mike had been pleased in an abstract sense, but he had still been bothered by looting Pictorís to get more film, so when the checks came in, heíd just signed them over to the Warsaw relief fund.

Mark and George were unaware of what was going on in Mikeís head just then. "Sounds like this Horton might be the guy weíre looking for," Mark said. "You want to take a run over to Warsaw this evening?"

"Yeah," Mike said, a little absently. "Itíd be good to see Jim again."

*   *   *

One of the things that went without saying was that Heather Sanford, like all the other members and staffers of the Defenders of Gaea, was unaware of the innermost financial workings of the group. Those were left to McMullen and Harper, and the latter managed to fuzz the bookkeeping and launder money so well that even the good auditing firm that regularly went over the books couldnít find the holes where money had been diverted to hidden accounts of their own.

In the years that Heather had been a staffer for the Defenders, McMullen hadnít called on her special talent very often Ė mostly, because Heather didnít like to feel used. McMullenís normal approach was to set a goal for Heather, something that needed doing, and left it up to her how to best accomplish it. Usually, he didnít ask about the details of how it got done, but more often than not, she was successful, which suited McMullen just fine.

So, McMullen was a little surprised when Heather refused to deal with Knox again. "There are things that I just wonít do, even for the good of the environment," sheíd told McMullen, and he decided that heíd better not push her.

He brought the matter up with Harper at the next morning strategy session. "So, weíre up the creek with that approach," he reported. "I think Iíd have been able to talk her into it if Iíd wanted to, but what would happen the next time?"

"Yeah," Harper agreed. "No point in burning her out. Weíve got to tread a little lightly with her right now, anyway."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, yesterday, I got a call from some gal in some state nature conservancy back east, checking references on Heather. It seems that sheís got a resumé in with them, for some sort of a field operative thing."

"Jesus, Harris, youíre just full of good news today, arenít you? What does she want? More money?"

"No," Harper said with a head shake. "In fact, I got curious. We ran the job announcement in our magazine, so I looked it up. The top of their range is a little less than weíre paying her now. I got the impression from this conservancy person that Heather is getting a little tired of working in an office in L.A. and wants to get her hands dirty. Dale, I donít think we want to lose her, even if she didnít carry the ball on this one."

"We canít lose her," McMullen agreed. "Sheís brought in a hell of a lot of money. More than that, sheís been a key player in a lot of our operations. But, I could see how she thinks sheís getting stale. After all, weíve had her in pretty much the same spot for eight years."

"Well, if she wants to get her hands dirty in field operations, we ought to be able to find a place for her," Harper commented. "Maybe six months or a year out in some grubby little hole out in the field would make L.A. look pretty good to her. God knows, there ought to be someplace we could find for her like that."

"Canít think of anything right now, at least nothing thatís going," McMullen said. "Maybe this snake thing with Jenny Easton. Maybe six months or so of snow and dumb hillbillies will make her see the light."

"We donít have an operation there," Harper said. "We donít have any local support, and reading between the lines, Iíll bet anyone in that town you asked would never have heard of the snake, and, if they had, would say that the fewer snakes in the world, the better."

"Youíre probably right," McMullen conceded.

"Whatís more," Harper went on, "it would cost us ten grand to fund the study, which has to go on or thereís no proving that the snake is there. On top of that, it would cost us twenty or thirty grand to fund an operative there for a year, and it could take that long to make something out of it. And, that doesnít count any legal expenses that might get brought up, since if you ainít got squat for local support, your next recourse is lawyers. So, thereís a minimum of forty, maybe fifty grand, and unless we get some sort of funding for it, we just havenít got fifty grand for that sort of thing. Hell, thatís a couple of good thirty-second spots for this Jenny Easton ad, and you know what thatíll bring in."

"Thatís only if we try to fund it straight ahead," McMullen protested. "Think of the bigger picture. If itís an operation we can get Jenny Easton interested in, get her to become some sort of a spokesperson or activist, then fifty grand is a good investment. Thatíll bring in some bucks."

Harris shook his head. "That leads us right back to the problem of getting to Jenny Easton."

"Yeah. Thatís the key."

McMullen and Harper stared at the ceiling for a moment. "Why not try the direct approach?" Harris asked. "Maybe write her a thank you letter. We owe her one, anyway. Maybe in it, we can say that thereís a project in her home town that weíre looking at, and we canít find anyone else in the L.A. area from anywhere near her town, and weíd like to talk to her, just to get some background?"

"It might work," McMullen said. "The problem is, you have to get through to her. Usually, mail to people like that goes through their studios or recording companies, and odds are something like that wonít make it to her."

"I know," Harper agreed. It does make it tough." He thought for a moment, then leaned forward to his intercom. "Mollie," he said, "did we send an honorary membership to Jenny Easton, in thanks for helping us out the other day?"

"I wrote it up myself," Harperís secretary replied.

"Do you happen to have her address out there, by any chance?"

"I donít know," Mollie said, "but it would be on the mailing list."

"Dig it out for me and bring it in here, please," Harper ordered.

In less than a minute, Harper had a printout in his hand. "How about that," he said to McMullen after Mollie had left. "A street address in Malibu."

"Son of a gun," McMullen said. "I never fail to be amazed at the information weíve collected that we donít know we have. Iíll get a letter knocked out for her."

"What are we going to do about Heather?"

"Iíd like to tell her weíve got a field operation for her, but right now, we donít. Iíd like to get her happy as soon as possible."

"Me, too," Harper agreed. "Why not just send her off on vacation? Maybe treat her to tickets to Hawaii, or someplace like that, just as a bonus."

"Sheís touchy about bonuses," McMullen said. "Letís look at the Hawaii files. Maybe thereís something there we can send her on that needs investigation without action."

"Just thinking about it, I can think of four or five letters Iíve gotten from Hawaii about situations like that in the last year," Harper said. "Maybe we just give her the list and tell her we want an overview of each one, formal report, the whole business. That ought to take her a couple of weeks. Maybe you can tell her to take some time off while sheís there."

"Not a bad idea," McMullen said. "Who knows, there might be something there thatíll need your and my personal attention, maybe this winter."

<< Back to Last Chapter
Forward to Next Chapter >>

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.