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 21

Danny and the two girls got out of the Appliance Center pickup in front of Josh’s house. They’d timed it well; Josh had just gotten back from a run to Camden. It had been a way freight, with his dad, and there’d been a lot of switching both ways. It was too late in the evening for much swimming. The four of them piled into the Chevette, and Amy gave Josh a little peck.

"Anybody got any ideas for this evening?" Josh asked. "I mean, I’ve already eaten, but we could make an Albany River run."

"We’ve eaten," Amy said. "Besides, some kids from the club are going down roller skating, so I don’t think we want to run the risk of getting caught at the burger joint."

"I suppose we could go see if we could dream up something," Danny said. "But that doesn’t interest me, much."

"Me, either," Josh said. "We could go roller skating, or we could put that off for Saturday. Tomorrow’s out. I’ve got to do a night run."

"Saturday night’s out," Danny said. "Sis is going to give a show at the club, and I’ve got to run the sound system."

"I know your mother doesn’t think much of you coming out to the club," Amy said. "But you really ought to think about sneaking out for that. The place will be mobbed, and maybe no one will notice you. It’ll be dark, after all, and she really puts on a show."

"Jeez, I’d like to," Josh said. "It’s darn tempting." It was even more tempting to consider the thought of seeing Amy bare assed, but somehow, that didn’t seem as important as it once did. He was surprised at the realization. "I’ll have to think about it."

"Well, anybody got any ideas about tonight?" Marsha asked.

Josh looked out the car window. The sky was clear, and there was a nearly full moon hanging in the sky. He thought about how nice it would be to go out someplace, put his arm around Amy, and look at the moon, and . . .

He shook off the thought. Not with Danny and Marsha in the back seat, anyway, but the residue of the thought left him with an idea. He started the car. "You think of something?" Amy said.

"Yeah," Josh replied. "Let’s go out to my sister’s house. Maybe we can get my brother-in-law to turn his telescope on the moon."

"That’s a great idea," Danny said. "I don’t know why we haven’t thought of that before." He turned to Marsha, but said loud enough for Amy to hear, "His brother-in-law has got this great big telescope, in his own observatory. It’s real neat."

"Well, I suppose it beats playing cards," Marsha said, not too thrilled.

"Maybe he’ll be out with his dogs, too," Josh said. "That might be kind of interesting."

"What’s this about dogs?" Danny asked.

Josh smiled. He’d heard about the dogs, but he hadn’t seen them yet. He’d been too busy. "He and Mike McMahon are training a dogsled team," Josh said. "They’re really looking forward to winter for once."

It only took a few minutes to drive out to Mark and Jackie’s farm, even though they had to go very slowly for the last mile, thanks to the rutted, potholed road. Just as they were about to turn in the driveway, they met Jackie and Cumulus in the pickup truck coming the other way, towing the sailplane trailer. "What brings you guys out here?" Jackie asked.

"We thought maybe we could get you or Mark to turn the telescope on the moon for us," Josh said.

"Can’t for a while," Jackie told him. "Mark landed out over by Warsaw. I didn’t think there was time enough to get a Warsaw trip in, but the lift was real strong, so he thought he’d risk it and took off from work early."

"Anything we can do to help?" Josh asked.

"Not really a heck of a lot," Jackie told him. "You want to tag along for the ride, you can, but a couple of you will have to ride in the back."

"What happened?" Amy asked. Josh explained for a minute about the sailplane, and that Jackie was going to have to go bring it back on the trailer.

"Well, what the heck, it would be something to do," Marsha said, "But I’m not real crazy about riding to Warsaw and back in the back of a pickup."

"Me either," Amy said. "It would take me a month to comb my hair back out."

"We can tag along behind in the car," Josh suggested."

"Fine with me," Danny said.

Josh told Jackie they’d follow along and turned around as Jackie headed toward the highway. In the back seat, Marsha scooted over to snuggle close to Danny, who put his arm around her. Josh looked in the rear view mirror, and wondered for a moment what was going on between the two out at the club. There had been hints from Amy that more was going on than he’d seen first hand or heard about from Danny. The summer was racing by, and he’d had a lot of fun with Amy, but he hadn’t been getting as close to her as it seemed Danny was getting to Marsha. With the three of them spending a lot of time at the club, where Danny was essentially living for the summer, Josh still often felt like the outsider of the group.

"Have you thought any more about going to Athens?" Marsha asked, trying to make conversation.

"I don’t know," Danny said. "I talked to Brandy when she was home. She said she’d talk to the people up at Tech for me this fall, and see if there’s any possibility of maybe a half ride for football. I really doubt I’d get it, though. I don’t think I’m good enough for an athletic scholarship, even at Michigan Tech with Brandy pulling for me. I know if I’m not good enough for Michigan Tech, I won’t be good enough for Athens."

"It would be nice to have you down there with me," Marsha said. "I mean, Amy and I already know we’re going there. Daddy wouldn’t have it any other way."

"Athens would be nice," Danny conceded. "And, if football isn’t involved, I suppose that doesn’t matter. But tuition at Athens is awful steep. Jennifer sort of hinted that she’d help out if I asked, but I really don’t want to ask her if I don’t have to."

"How about you, Josh?" Amy asked, taking the hint from Marsha, and sliding closer to him. "Have you given any thought to going to Athens?"

"I don’t know," Josh told her. "The money’s really a problem for me. Mom and Dad are just about strapped with Johnny going to college, and I hate to have to ask them to put out the kind of money Athens would take. I’ve given some thought to going into the Army to build up a college fund, but I just don’t know."

"It would be neat if the four of us could be together down at Athens," Amy said.

Josh shook his head. "I’m not real sure that’s what I want to do, anyway. It’s still two years off, almost, before I have to make a decision, so I guess it’s not very real to me yet."

"I guess," Amy said. "I mean, Marsha and I have always known we’re expected to go to Athens, but it seems a ways off to me, too."

"I don’t know," Josh replied. "Athens would be nice, I suppose." He wondered about that. College seemed pretty ethereal, and he wasn’t sure that was what he wanted to do. It was something that was going to need some serious thought.

It was a long drive out to Warsaw, although it went a lot more quickly than it did on the railroad. The 1-26 sat with a wing down in a pasture to the west of town.

"It was going real good," Mark reported. "And then, all of a sudden, it went flat. I mean, there was nothing there."

"I told you that was going to happen," Jackie told him. "You know Danny, of course, but I don’t know their girlfriends."

Josh introduced Marsha and Amy, and as they watched, Jackie and Mark set to taking the wings off of the little sailplane. It was amazing to watch; the white Schweizer was loaded onto the trailer in minutes.

"Was Mike working the dogs?" Mark asked as they loaded a wing.

"No, he was busy with Susan," Jackie said. "I guess the dogs get a break tonight."

"Better not," Mark said. "With the moon this bright, I’d like to try working them at night anyway. They’re supposed to be more manageable after dark."

"The kids sort of wanted to look through the telescope," Jackie said.

"We could," Mark said. "But there’s an awful lot of moon, and all it’s going to do is blow your eyes out." He set the wing down and began to bolt it into its holder. "You kids come out next week sometime, and we won’t have the early moon, and I can show you some real neat stuff."

"If you don’t mind," Danny said.

"No, I like to show stuff off," Mark said, "but this just isn’t a good night for it."

In but a few minutes more, the four were back in the car and following Jackie and Mark back out to the highway. It was getting dark, now. "Is there anything to do in Warsaw?" Marsha asked.

"Not that I know of," Danny told her. "Unless you want to go watch them load boxcars with toilet paper."

"I think I can take a pass on that," she said.

Danny shrugged. "It’s a warm evening." he said. "We could still go swimming."

"We didn’t bring suits," Amy said.

"Me either," Josh agreed.

"Strikes me that we don’t exactly need swimsuits," Danny said. "I mean, stop and think about it."

"I’m willing if you are, Josh," Amy smiled.

This could be the opportunity he’d dreamed about. "I’m game," he said. "Got any idea where? There’s a beach on the north side of the lake that’s usually pretty quiet, but it’s probably pretty buggy."

Marsha smiled. "If we’re thinking about going skinny dipping, then the obvious place is the club."

"Yeah," Josh said. "But . . . "

"That’s not a bad idea," Danny interjected. "It’ll be dark, we can stay down at the end of the lake. Besides, I’ve driven this car out there enough, nobody will think anything’s strange if they see it. We can get away with it, Josh."

Thus it was that Josh Archer saw Amy Ashtenfelter in the nude for the first time, in the light of a nearly-full moon.

It was an interesting sight, but somehow Josh wasn’t as moved by it as he thought he would be. Danny had been right; somehow, inexplicably, it was different than he’d expected, and somehow didn’t seem to matter as much.

*   *   *

Halfway across the Rockies, Heather Sanford gave up on the idea of going to Walden Pond. Any way she could cut it, it was another three thousand miles to drive, and she realized she’d be spending all her time behind the wheel of the little red Omni she’d bought. It was only two years old, seemed to be in pretty good shape, and didn’t have a lot of miles on it. This car seemed a lot more solid than her Honda, and the gas mileage would have to be almost as good. She’d thought of buying a big, wine-colored Cutlass Supreme, which would have been a lot more comfortable to drive, and had a trunk to lock her stuff up in, but it obviously would have been a lot harder on fossil fuel.

It had been a long time since Heather had worked on endangered species, except for whales, and within the U.S. there was a considerable body of law and regulation that she needed to be brought up to date on, so she decided to stop off in Boulder for a few days to brush up on it. There was more to study than she’d thought, and it had been Tuesday before she’d filled a notebook with notes and a briefcase with a pile of Xeroxed documents for study later. It had been a long, dull drive from there to Minneapolis, where she stopped in the regional Fish and Wildlife Service office to get the latest update on the critical interest area for the snake, and the Service office’s policies about endangered species in general.

It was in Minneapolis that she actually saw the Gibson’s water snake specimen; a pathetic looking little black shoestring, rather battered, floating around in a jar of formaldehyde. It filled Heather with gloom to look at; she’d be spending months and sweat working on this thing when she could have been working on blue whales if she’d played her cards right. But, every species is as important as any other one, she reminded herself, and had added to her pile of notes and background material.

She’d stopped off in Athens on Friday afternoon, in hopes of seeing Dr. Gerjevic, only to find that he was in Greece. However, the department secretary had been able to give her the name and address of the investigator in Spearfish Lake, and the news that no other specimens of the Gibson’s water snake had been found yet.

After the drive from L.A., the drive up to Spearfish Lake on Saturday was relatively short. Harper had been right; she’d needed the drive across the country to help her see the size of the problem. It was, she realized, a pipsqueak issue, especially compared to the sins she’d seen from the window of her Omni, but thinking about the questions at hand had cleared up a lot of her depression. Bring this one under control, and there’d be a really good line of field work to show on her resumé, and she could send out resumés in comfort for months while she piddled with this snake thing.

Camden struck her as just another town, nothing like the size or the diversity of Boston or L.A., but it was only as she drove north from Camden that she realized just how small and remote Spearfish Lake was going to be. After L.A., it was really the middle of nowhere. Mile after mile of tamarack swamp rolled by, broken by higher pine or aspen forests, and only rarely were there houses along the way. The last town before Spearfish Lake, Albany River, didn’t seem to be much more than a wide spot in the road, and the leg from there north may have been the bleakest of all, but by now, it was getting dark.

She was obviously going to have to look for an apartment, but it was too late to do it today, so she pulled into the first motel she found after pulling off the state road, the Spearfish Lake Inn. "Got one room left," the lady behind the desk told her. "Afraid it’s not the nicest in the house, but it’s Saturday night, and there’s some sort of a special deal going on at the Turtle Lake Club, so we’re pretty full. I can move you to a better one tomorrow, if you like."

Heather was expecting a real dump, but was pleasantly surprised. The room was small, but neat and clean, and freshly painted; she’d paid six times as much for a worse room in Honolulu. "This is fine," she told the lady. "I’m going to be looking for an apartment, so maybe I’ll stay for a few days. Don’t worry about moving me."

"If you say so," the lady smiled. "The pool and hot tub are down to the left, and the restaurant’s to the right. The restaurant closes at nine, but the grill in the lounge will be open till midnight."

Plenty of time to eat, Heather thought, and after the day in the car, even the thought of the pool and the hot tub sounded wonderful. She took her luggage into the room, but it involved some digging around in the car to find the box with her one swimsuit, a bikini she’d splurged on in Hawaii. It was rather brief for her body, but who cared?

Heather was a strong swimmer; half a dozen laps of the pool worked out a lot of kinks. Her heart rate was up nicely, so she just floated around in the empty pool for a while, cooling off, before she got out and eased her way into the hot tub, which was just as empty as the pool. It was hot, maybe a little hotter than she liked it, but that didn’t matter; it felt good. She lay back, looking at nothing in particular, just plotting what she’d have to do to get established, and get a handle on things.

Her reverie was broken by a male voice. "Mind if I join you?"

She looked up to see a man in a swimsuit. He had to be ten years or more older than she was, a handsome guy, with dark hair shot with gray, and a gentle voice. "Plenty of room," she said, sliding away from the steps into the tub.

The man got into the tub, and sat down across from her. "Been here long?" he asked, obviously trying to make conversation.

"Just got into town," she said, trying to be friendly.

"Long drive?"

"Been going for days. It’s good to just sit here and not have to steer."

"You must not be from around here, then," he said.

"California," she said. "It’s a long ways from California. How about you?"

"Oh, I’m from right here in town," he said. "Every now and then, I slip Amanda a few bucks to let me use this thing. Sure would like to have one at home, but they’re a little steep on my salary, especially paying alimony."

Heather got the message. He was single, then, and was available for action, not that she wanted any. All of a sudden, she wished her bikini wasn’t quite so scanty, but it was a good guess that all she had to do was to show no interest. "What do people do for a living around here?" she asked.

"Whatever they can," the man said, opening his hands. "A lot of lumbering, although it’s mostly pulp cutting. A lot of people work at the plywood mill, although they haven’t actually made plywood for years. It’s all chipboard and composition board, now. You just passing through?"

"No, I may be in town for a while," Heather replied. There was no point in tipping her hand yet on why she was here. "Going to be doing some investigation. What are apartment rentals in this town like?"

"A little steep," the man replied. "Girl we had teaching band last year had an apartment down at Westwood last winter. Nice place, and it cost her two-seventy a month."

Heather was amazed. "That’s not steep," she said. "It was costing me twice that in California, and the place was a dump."

"Well, tomorrow morning . . . no, better make that tomorrow afternoon, she’ll be in church . . . go down Main here until it runs into the lake, then take a left onto Point Drive. It’ll be a couple blocks up on the left. Ask for Susie. Tell her John Pacobel sent you. She might even have one empty with a lake view."

"That’s great," Heather said, realizing she was drifting closer to something she didn’t want to do. The warm water, the ambiance was getting to her. "I’ll sure do that," she said, getting up, and stepping out of the tub. "Thanks for your help."

"No problem," John told her.

"This thing is making me sleepy," she said, and realized she was telling the truth. It had been a long trip. She picked up her towel, dried lightly, and wrapped it around her. "I guess I’ll go get something to eat, and get some sleep."

"Well, maybe I’ll see you around."

"Could be," she said, turning to leave. "Nice meeting you, John."

*   *   *

Once Heather got back to her room, she took off her bikini and started to dry off for real, but as she did, there were quiet second thoughts that started to creep in. Maybe she’d brushed this Pacobel guy off a bit too quickly; he seemed like a nice guy, and she could have pumped him for a lot more information about the town.

Besides, so what if things got a little hot and heavy? It had been a long time. And, maybe she’d been a little too wary, anyway; Pacobel hadn’t exactly made a pass at her.

Still, there was no point in inviting trouble; she decided to dress casual, maybe a little grungy, and stay out of the lounge. She really was tired, and she was getting a little hungry, too.

She dried her hair, then pulled on a pair of Bermudas and a "Save the Whales" T-shirt a couple of sizes too large, and set off for the restaurant. She wondered a little if that would be a little underdressed, but decided that a traveler’s motel in this part of the country, probably wouldn’t have much of a dress code.

The restaurant was nearly empty; a sign at the entrance said, "Please seat yourself." She did, over near the window, not for any good reason, since in the dark there wasn’t a lot to see over there except the parking lot and the other side of the street. The waitress brought her a menu, and a glass of water. The menu seemed mostly a lot of meat and potatoes. Well, this was the Midwest, after all. But, one whole panel of the menu had a list of "Vegetarian Specialties." There were usually two or three, in the restaurants she’d seen coming east, but this was quite a selection. Though Heather wasn’t a vegetarian, per se, she usually preferred to eat that way. Even though she knew that those animals were raised for food, it still bothered her a bit. Besides, the broccoli fettuccini with lentil sauce sounded pretty good.

It took a long time for the waitress to come back; there was just the one girl, and she was trying to work the lounge, too. Presently, Heather began to get a little bored.

Over by the cash register, she could see a newspaper rack. "Spearfish Lake Record-Herald," it said on the outside, with a decidedly un-Midwestern Marlin logo jumping at the side of the lettering. From the distance, she could read a big streamer of a headline: LANDOWNERS TO PAY BIG. Well, checking out the local paper would be a good way to start to get the lay of the land, she thought, and got up and paid a quarter to the machine for a copy.

She went back to the table, unfolded the paper, and began to read, wondering what the locals were upset about. The kicker headline sent a shock right straight up her spine: CITY FORCED TO BUILD DRAIN. The first paragraph confirmed her suspicions. It was the sewer separation project that Harper and McMullen had told her about, except that it already had a lot bigger head of steam than she’d been led to understand. She devoured the story, attention focused so much that the waitress almost had to yell to get her attention for her order. She went back, started at the beginning again, and read the story over more carefully this time. There wasn’t a mention of the snake, or the critical interest district she’d been told about in Minneapolis. "I’ll bet they don’t even know about it," she said to herself. Well, there was still time to nip it in the bud, even though she’d be coming from a lot farther behind than she had at Old Brook.

She read the story a third time. Wasn’t that just like the so-called EPA, going off half-cocked, without a full comprehension of what was involved?

Still wrapped up in the newspaper story, she was only half aware of someone standing across the table from her. She looked up. "Come on," Pacobel said. "The local paper isn’t that interesting."

"What do you know about this?" she asked, all business, now.

"I know that there are a lot of very upset people running around this town," he said. "I’m one of them. It’s going to cost me about seventeen hundred bucks. I sure wouldn’t want to be someone from the EPA who walks into town right now. They’d get tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail."

"It can’t be that bad."

"You want to bet? If you’re from the EPA, just try it on."

"I’m not," Heather said. It might be best to not say where she was from, though, at least right now; people might not be able to tell the difference.

"Mind if I sit down?" John asked.

"No, sure, go ahead," Heather replied absently, the wheels spinning hard in her mind. Really, the fact that people were upset with the EPA was excellent news for her. If it was going to take a fight with the EPA to protect the snake, then it would help a lot that people in the town were already mad at the EPA. Now, to channel that anger, that was her job. It would be a lot easier than creating anger in the first place. This John guy would be as good a place as any to find out what she was really dealing with. "People are against this sewer project, huh?" she asked.

John shrugged. "I don’t think a lot of people are against the project for its own sake. Realistically, I think most people know that it needs to be done. They’re not real crazy about being forced to pay for it, and they’re especially not real crazy about the feds coming in here so high-handed and ordering it done."

"That’s the feds for you," she said. "They don’t care what trouble they cause, just so long as they get their paychecks."

Heather found out a lot about Spearfish Lake in the next hour, as she picked John’s brain, never letting on that she worked for the Defenders, and never letting the topic of the Gibson’s water snake come up at all. By the end of that hour, she was feeling a lot better about the project. It wouldn’t be easy, but she thought it would be a lot less difficult than she’d imagined to accomplish her mission. She’d arrived at exactly the right time! Earlier, she’d have made a lot of noise and enemies, and no one would have cared, and later, it would be too late to do anything.

In fact, she felt better about her mission now, and about herself, too. It wasn’t whales, but it was a worthwhile project. Maybe Harper and McMullen hadn’t been stiffing her, after all.

There was a lot more to learn about this town, and the snake, but she was ready. She could get settled in the next couple of days, then find this Appleton girl who was handling the research project, and get the scoop on what was really going on with the snake.

After an hour, she’d learned about what she thought could pick up from Pacobel. She’d been conspicuously yawning for half of the discussion, and when they reached the point where she felt she’d gotten about all she could out of him for one sitting, she told him, "John, this has all been very interesting, but I’m so tired I can barely keep my eyes open, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to shut this off."

"Sure," John said. "Give me a call, any time. I’m the only Pacobel in the book. Maybe we can do dinner, or something."

"Maybe," Heather conceded. "I’d like that."

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