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 12

With the sun setting late, it was hard to get Tiffany and Henry to bed at something approaching the right time, but they had to be gotten up early so Kirsten could run them out to the day care at the club and still make it to work on time. The next day was a Saturday, but there was no point in letting them get too far off schedule, so it took some doing to get them put down for the night that was still to come.

It was still light, though the sun was dipping toward the horizon, and Kirsten was wondering where her husband and Mark might be. After thinking about it for a bit, she realized that they might be up at Markís, maybe drinking beer and talking about dogs or flying, or something. Not that she was worried; Mike often had to stay out late Ė but she was curious. Besides, that gave her a reason to call Jackie.

Kirsten and Jackie had been friends in high school, but after high school, theyíd gone their separate ways. It was strange; theyíd lived in the same town virtually ever since, except for the several months that Jackie had been gone on her honeymoon, and except for the two years that Kirsten had spent in community college, trying to put Henry Toivo out of her mind, but somehow, the friendship had faded. Kirsten knew that Jackie was a bit of a loner, not one to make friends easily, and she had wondered once or twice how such a loner could have ever hooked up with Mark.

But Mark and Jackie had put a lot of time into helping out with the move, and since they were going to be neighbors, Kirsten hoped to renew the friendship a little. The missing husbands gave her an excuse for a little womanly chat, after all. She had to look up the number before she called.

"Spearfish Signs," Jackie answered. Kirsten was taken a little aback, but realized that must be how Jackie answered the phone, day or night.

"Hi, Jackie. This is Kirsten. Do you have any idea where our wandering boys are?"

"No, I donít," Jackie replied. "I sort of figured they stopped off at your place to move something after they got back from Warsaw."

"Iím not too sure why they went to Warsaw, anyway. Mike said that he had someone he wanted to see."

"I know," Jackie replied, a slight bit of exasperation creeping into her voice. "Thereís some guy over there who used to run dog teams, and they went over to pick his brain. Any one of these days, I expect to look out the kitchen window and see a couple of dozen dogs, while Markís studying maps of Alaska."

"To tell you the truth, Iím getting a little worried about Mike. He was reading Jack London last night. It wouldnít surprise me to look up and see a yard full of dogs, either."

"Thatís worse."

"You bet," Kirsten agreed. "The two of them together will just drive each other into it."

"Sometimes Iím sorry that I never had children, but Iíll tell you, sometimes my husband is child enough."

"Speaking of kids, mine are in bed, so I canít leave. But, why donít you slide down here, and try out the first cookies Iíve baked in our new house?"

It took Jackie a little talking and a couple of minutes to make up her mind, but soon she was jogging the quarter mile up the road to Mike and Kirstenís house. It would be hard to list everything the two talked about for the next hour, except that what really was happening was the renewal of old ties. The discussion eventually worked its way around to the hot tub, with Kirsten giving a sales pitch, and eventually, Jackie and Kirsten decided to try it out.

"Thereís just one rule," Kirsten said. "We picked it up from Gil and Carrie, but we can bend it if it makes you uncomfortable."

"Whatís that?"

"No swimsuits in the hot tub. Like I say, we can bend it if you want to."

"I donít have a swimsuit here, anyway," Jackie said. "Iíd have to go home to find one. I guess it doesnít matter. Mark and I went to a nude beach once, while we were on our honeymoon, and it was sort of fun, then. But, I was a little younger then, too."

"Itís sort of like skinny dipping," Kirsten smiled. "Kind of fun."

The water seemed awful hot to Jackie, but Kirsten suggested that she just sit on the edge of the tub for a few minutes, her feet in the water, before she got in. Once she had her nude body immersed in the water, though, and had gotten used to it, the pulsations of the aerator on her body felt wonderfully relaxing. "I could get used to this, real easy," she told Kirsten.

"Itís going to be nice having one," the shorter blonde said. "I always wanted one at the house in town, but there wasnít enough room. My back has been hurting so bad with this baby that Iím really glad weíve got it. I just wish weíd gotten it sooner."

"Are you going to take off from work when the baby comes?"

Kirsten smiled. "Well, Iíll take a few days off. I took two months off with both Tiffany and Henry, and didnít hit a lick, but Harry Bailey was still running the department then, and as luck had it, it was during a slow period, each time. This critter," she said, pointing, "isnít being as cooperative as far as timing goes, and I canít take that much time off, so weíre going to shuffle jobs around for a while. Sallyís going to be making most of the calls, except for a few that Carrie will make and a few that I have to make, and Iím going to bring a computer home and sit here and do some typesetting and ad makeup. If it works out, we may keep it up for six months or so. My momís getting on up there, and I donít want to have to lean on her for babysitting as much as I did with the others."

"Well, with my business, I often have to go out and canít watch a kid all the time, but if you get in a bind, Iím just up the road," Jackie said.

"Thanks. Thatíll be a big help. Are you sure you donít mind?

"Itíd be kind of fun to have a baby around again. I used to watch Johnny and Josh for Dad and Sarah when they were little, but havenít had to do it much since they started school. Now, Johnnyís in college, and Josh will be in a couple of years."

"I may be getting a little personal, but how come you never had kids?"

"Thatís kind of a long story," Jackie said. It was in fact getting a little personal; Jackieís real mother had been institutionalized, far out of touch with reality, when she was little, and had died there after more than ten years. Kirsten knew that, of course, but didnít know that Jackie had always been a little scared that whatever had been wrong with her mother was hereditary; Jackie didnít even like to admit it to herself. "Iíve given it some thought," she admitted, "Iím beginning to realize that if Mark and I are ever going to have kids, weíre going to have to get started."

"It gets harder as you get older," Kirsten said. "Believe me, I know."

Outside, a car door slammed, then another one. They heard Markís voice: "Cumulus, you stay in the truck."

Jackie cringed a little; it was all right to sit there naked in the hot tub with Kirsten, but with the guys coming in it was another story. Then, she realized that it was second nature to Mike and Kirsten Ė she knew theyíd been guests of the Evachevskis several times Ė and that she had no choice but to be casual about it, or else sheíd hurt some feelings. Still, it was hard to be casual when Mike walked in the door and said, "Aha! Thought weíd find you here."

"Did you find out anything useful?" Jackie asked, trying to not think about her embarrassment, "Or did you just get a lot of stories about the good old days?"

"Got a lot of stories," Mark said. "But, we got a lot of useful information, too."

"Is that a private party, or is there room for two more?" Mike asked.

"Oh, come join us and tell us all about it," Kirsten said.

"Yeah," Jackie said dryly. "I think weíd better know how many dogs you brought back with you."

"Just brought back the one we took with us," Mark said, peeling off his polo shirt. "He spent most of the trip back sitting on the seat looking out the back window and wagging his tail though."

Jackie started to ask what Cumulus found so interesting out the back window, but Mike broke in as he took his pants off, "Sorry to be so late, but Jimís a talker, and it was hard to get away. Just fascinating, though. We sat on his porch, and let him talk, and it was real interesting. All of a sudden, we realized it was getting dark, and we had to get back." Naked now, Mike sat on the edge of the hot tub, swung his legs around, and slid into the water.

Mark was only a few seconds behind him. "Worth the trip, though. I think we learned a lot," he added.

"Man," Mike said, putting his arm around Kirsten and sliding low into the water, "think how good this is going to feel when we come in after a long, cold day on the trail."

"Yeah," Mark agreed. "I can just imagine. It would be something to look forward to."

Kirsten looked at Jackie. "Iím not sure I like the sound of that."

"I canít get over some of those stories," Mike said, ignoring his wifeís remark. "I guess if you run dogs as long as he did, heís going to have some stories. God, that bit when he got hurt."

"Yeah, a snow machine wouldnít have done that," Mark agreed. "I was impressed."

"Are you going to tell us about this, or just leave us hanging?" Jackie said as she felt Markís arm around her.

"I canít tell it like Jim told it," Mark said, leaning back, "But he was out on his trap line, way the hell and gone back in the woods, and somehow or another, he got knocked off his sled, right on the edge of this embankment. Sprained his arm, knocked the hell out of his knee, and must have knocked the hell out of his head, too. Anyway, he was out cold for a while, and when he came to, hereís Seagull, licking his face. Or was that Silver?"

"Silver, I think he said," Mike replied. "His lead dog."

"Yeah, youíre right, it was Silver," Mark went on. "Anyway, this was one smart dog. Heíd realized that Jim had gone over the side, and somehow or another, heíd found a route down to the bottom of that gully and led the other four dogs and the sled down to where Jim was laying hurt, so when he came to, here was Silver trying to wake him up, three other dogs digging him out of the snowdrift, and one dog licking at his bloody knee, trying to get it to stop bleeding."

"He said when he went out there later, he never could figure out how Silver could have found a route to get the sled and team down there," Mike added.

"Anyway, Jim wasnít playing with a full deck just yet," Mark went on. "Must have been in shock, a little. He got hold of a couple of the dogsí harnesses, and they pulled him out of the drift. Well, Silver could see that some of the lines had gotten tangled while the dogs were digging him out, so he brought the team past him, one by one, so he could straighten the lines out. Then, somehow Jim managed to crawl up in the sled before he passed out. When he came to, it was after dark, and all the dogs were barking. The dogs had taken him straight home, and were trying to wake up his wife."

"He said that if heíd been on a snow machine, heíd have died out there," Mike agreed. "He said that while dogs still may be dogs, theyíre a hell of a lot smarter than people give them credit for."

"Still, itís got to take a while to get a team trained that well, even given a good leader," Mark commented. "I mean, he had the advantage of being able to bootstrap himself a team when he started. We arenít that lucky."

"Itís like he said," Mike agreed. "Iím guessing heís right, anyway. When we get started, one of us is going to have to be the lead dog for a while, even given that Cumulus has got the basic commands down pretty well."

"No doubt about it. He was impressed with Cumulus. He thinks weíre off to a good start, with him."

"Weíve got a few months before the snow flies," Mike said. "If we can get the basics down with a good core of dogs, then maybe it wonít be too bad for us to add on a few more."

There were words flying around in that discussion that alarmed both the women. "Whatís all this Ďweí and Ďusí jazz?" Kirsten asked.

"Well, Tiffany wants a dog, anyway," Mike explained. "We worked it out on the way back. If we get Tiffany a dog, and maybe one or two others, then between us, weíve got a start of a team."

"We can work together training them, and thatíll make it go easier. Then, we can mess around with them out in the woods this winter," Mark added. "Get out and see how it goes, and then go from there if we want to. One team might be plenty for both of us, but once weíve got the beginnings of a working team, we can add to it, and maybe even clone it into two teams if we want to."

Jackie shook her head and looked at Kirsten. "You see what I mean?" she said.

"You mean about your husband being enough of a child?" Kirsten said, then added ruefully, "I think itís catching."

*   *   *

McMullen wished that Harper could be with him; after all, he was only about half a mile from Harperís house, but it was halfway across L.A. from his own home to the restaurant where Jenny Easton had agreed to meet him.

He had been surprised at the speed with which heíd gotten a response; the letter was mailed on a Thursday, and Friday afternoon, heíd gotten a call from someone named Blake Walworth, setting up the meeting. That was damn fast work for the postal service, any way you cut it, and she must not have waited to get on the phone Ė which made him think that she had to be interested in the project, which he hadnít made too clear in his letter, purposefully.

Still, it was a long drive for a Saturday morning, although the legendary Los Angeles traffic was lighter than it would have been during a weekday rush hour. Still, Walworth had told McMullen that it would be the last chance that heíd have to talk with Jenny for a while, so there was little choice but to work on a Saturday.

He parked his car in the parking lot Ė not the Mercedes, but the six-year-old Honda Civic that he drove when working prospects, to show how frugal and environmentally conscious he was. The old car made the right impression on some people, and this time, heíd deemed it the safer choice.

He walked into the restaurant, and looked around. There, in a booth in the back, sat Jenny Easton, with the guy who had been with her at the shoot a week before. The guy saw McMullen, and waved him over to the table.

"You timed that pretty well," Jenny said, introducing Walworth as her bodyguard. "The waitress hasnít even gotten to us, yet."

"I didnít want to keep you waiting," McMullen said. "Weíve got a rough edit on the shoot from last week, and it really looks good. I just donít know how to thank you enough for the great job you did." There was nothing lost by buttering her up a little, he thought.

"It worked out all right," Jenny admitted. "When the shoot was first mentioned as being at Big Sur, right in the middle of my vacation, I wasnít real pleased, but thereís nothing wrong with a few free hours spent on Catalina."

"Glad you feel that way. Iím just pleased you could make your valuable time available, both then, and today."

"Glad I could help," she replied. "Now, whatís this about an environmental problem in Spearfish Lake?"

"To some people, it might not be a big thing," McMullen said, leaning into his presentation, "but to us in the Defenders, it is, but we need a little help in deciding what to do about it and then how to go about doing it. It seems that a couple of months ago, someone in Spearfish Lake discovered what appears to be an extinct species of water snake."

"The Gibsonís water snake?" she asked.

"Yes," McMullen replied, surprised at being thrown off stride. "How did you know about that?"

"I get the Spearfish Lake Record-Herald sent to me," she said, reaching into a folder beside her. "When I got your letter, I kind of suspected that this was what you were talking about."

She handed him a copy of the newspaper; there on the front page was the short piece about the snake, and the Fish and Wildlife Serviceís proposal to declare parts of the county a critical interest area. He read the story over; it didnít take long. "Thatís the snake," he said, "but thereís things that arenít in that story."


"To make a long story short, the snake was found in the sewer system of the town. The Fish and Wildlife Service has funded a researcher to study the area to see how large the population of Gibsonís water snakes is, but unfortunately, the researcher was only given partial funding. Whatís really needed is television surveillance of the sewers all through the town, to find out if there really is a population of the snakes living there. Thatís not the sort of thing we normally do, but if the researcher canít come up with some other source of funds, then I suppose weíll have to find the money somewhere. Maybe we can take it from the ozone hole research project, but thatís neither here nor there, since thatís not the real problem."

McMullen was interrupted by the waitress, who took orders of coffee from the three of them.

"Whatís the problem, then?" Jenny asked.

"Fairly simple," McMullen said. "The town is getting ready to rebuild the sewer system. If they do, itíll wipe out the snake habitat, the only place where this highly endangered species was known to be living. Now, Iíll be the first to admit that not many people are going to be very interested in a snake that lives in a sewer, but one thing Iíve learned in all my years in this business is that everything counts. The snail darter, the Furbishís lousewort, the Gibsonís water snake Ė they count, too."

"I remember seeing a story in the paper about that," Jenny said. "The city is trying to get a grant to do the storm sewer separation."

"Iíve seen the same story," McMullen admitted, not mentioning that heíd gone over it that morning, just to be sure he had everything he knew straight. "And, to refresh your memory, the city isnít the one pushing for the storm sewer separation. Itís coming out of the state department of natural resources, and the so-called Environmental Protection Agency, neither one of which apparently cares about an endangered snake that lives in a sewer."

"So where does Miss Easton fit into this?" Blake asked, the first time heíd spoken since McMullen had been there.

"Thereís several things," McMullen admitted. "Obviously, weíve got to assess how bad the danger to this snake really is. We donít have much information, and Spearfish Lake is a long way away."

"Yes, it is," Jenny interrupted.

"So, we need information. Probably weíre going to have to send one of our field workers there to get information on the snake, the sewer project, and that sort of thing. One of the things that this field worker will have to assess is how strong the local support or opposition would be if we have to take action, so I guess, first, Iíd need the names of anyone that you could come up with who could help our worker make that assessment, or perhaps names of people in the area who are environmentally aware. Weíve checked our membership files; we have no members living in Spearfish Lake or nearby. Youíre the only one we know from there."

"The best person you could talk to about whoís doing what would be my friend, the newspaper editor, Mike McMahon," Jenny said. "Heís not any kind of an environmental activist, but heís likely to know anyone whoís doing anything on either side," Jenny said. "As far as people who are active, I canít think of anyone right off the top of my head. Thereís a guy outside of town whoís been active in a hiking trail running through the area, but whether heís the person you want to talk to, I canít say." She sighed. "To be honest, I guess itís not the sort of town where people get interested in environmental activism. Most people are pretty aware of nature, and arenít too happy about seeing it messed up, but you have to realize that the town runs to hunters and pulp loggers, and they donít have the same sort of values as you might find elsewhere."

"Sort of back woods, then," McMullen said.

"Yes, but no," Jenny replied. "I mean, suppose you had an oil spill up there. Not likely, since there are no oil wells, but suppose you had something like what happened up the coast here. Youíd see a lot of people out cleaning up ducks. But then, come duck season, youíd see a lot of those same people out in duck blinds, blasting away at those same ducks. You see what I mean?"

"Conservationists, not environmentalists," McMullen said. "Iíve seen the pattern before. Sometimes itís our greatest problem. Sometimes we have to educate people about going beyond simple conservation to a broader environmentalism. We canít always do that from within the community."

"I think I see," Jenny said.

"That leads to our next problem," McMullen said, enjoying the lecture. Once, heíd planned to be a teacher, but that was before the 1960ís got to him. "Now, Iíll admit that what Iím about to say is down the road, and it makes several suppositions about things that havenít happened yet. But, they could happen. Suppose we do determine that there are Gibsonís water snakes living in the sewer Ė or, not even find them, but continue to suspect theyíre there. Suppose that the city gets forced by the state and federal governments into rebuilding the sewer system. We, the Defenders of Gaea, would have to fight. We wouldnít have any choice. Do you see that?"

"Of course."

"Fighting can be expensive. Not only in money, but in political credit weíve built up. If that day comes, weíve got to fight with everything we can get our hands on. When it happens, it would be of great benefit if someone from Spearfish Lake with a great national stature could go to bat for this snake Ė in the press, leading demonstrations, things like that. Could we count on you?"

"No," Jenny said, icily. She had the same sort of fire in her eye that McMullen had seen when she tore a strip off of that television producer, threatening to feed him to the fish. "Mr. McMullen, Iíd better explain. Ever since Iíve been in show business, Iíve made it a policy to not let any publicity connect me with Spearfish Lake. Thereís some very good reasons for it that I donít want to go into, and Iím not likely to change my policy."

It was not the response that McMullen was expecting, but he rolled with the punch. "Well, I appreciate that, Miss Easton," he said. "I just wish that everyone we talk to would be as forthright and honest when they turn us down. I really appreciate that."

"Look," she said. "Donít get me wrong. I appreciate what youíre trying to do, but thatís something I donít want to give in on. My greatest desire is to move back to Spearfish Lake some day, and Iíd hate to see the city get forced into doing something thatís wrong. Iím willing to help where I can, but I canít have my name associated with it in any way. Is that thoroughly understood?"

McMullen could almost hear the cash register jingle; it was music to his ears. Maybe this trip wasnít a waste, after all. "Of course," he said. "What you do doesnít have to go beyond the three of us."

"Whatís it going to cost for the TV surveillance, and your initial assessment?" she asked.

"Itís hard to say," he said. "Just as an off the cuff guess, Iíd guess about twenty-five or thirty thousand," he said. "Part of that is for the TV surveillance, and part would be for several months for a field representative to study the problem. Itís more than just local people; we need to study state law, find out where the pressure points are in the state. Itís been many years since weíve run a major project in your state, and none of those involved endangered species, so weíre starting from scratch. We may have to put pressure on in Washington, too, but thatís what our people are in Washington for. And, thereíll be some inevitable administrative costs, too." About half the total, he estimated, but she didnít need to know that. "Thatíll just get us started, maybe last three or four months, but by then, weíll have some idea of whether we have to make a major effort, or not."

"All right," she said. "Whatís your tax-exempt number?"

McMullen not only had the number memorized, but engraved on his heart. Still, he made a show of digging in his wallet, and pulling out a beat-up business card that had the number scribbled across the back. Jenny took the card, made a couple of notes in a notebook she pulled from the bag next to her, then pulled out a checkbook. "Iím going to attach some strings to this," she said, before she pulled out a pen.

"What might they be?" McMullen purred.

"First, this donation is to be anonymous. I want no connection of my name with it."

"Our treasurer will have to know," McMullen said. "But, no one else."

"Thatís all right," she said. "I just donít want it made public. Second, I want a written report from you and your field representative at least once a month on the progress youíre making, whether youíve found the snakes, that sort of thing. Can you do that?"

"Of course," McMullen said. "The only thing is that the person Iíd like to send on this project is currently busy with a project in Hawaii, so it may be three or four weeks before theyíre in Spearfish Lake."

"Then report that," Jenny said, in a businesslike manner, starting to write. "If the reports are satisfactory, then I may be able to continue with further funding, but my tax accountant may have something to say about how much more I can contribute."

Now Blake spoke up. "Jenny, thatís an awful lot of money," he said with a tone of reproach.

"It is a lot of money," Jenny told him. "It would be close to a yearís income for my mother and father. But for me, itís either give it to the Defenders of Gaea, or give it to the IRS, and you know what the IRS would do with it."

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