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 22

Johnís advice to try the Westwood Apartments had been good, Heather realized. The apartment was nothing special, but it was cozy and clean and in good repair, and at the mention of his name the manager had brightened. She did indeed have an apartment looking out over the lake; it was on the upper level, but the manager said that since they werenít full, she could have it at lower-level prices.

After her grubby apartment in L.A., at twice the price, and looking out at a wall to boot, it was like Heather had stepped into a dream. It was going to be hard to leave. There was a beach, right across the road, and although the water looked cold, it was going to be refreshing to take a swim once in a while.

But that was beside the point; there was work to be done, and the first thing to do would be to look up this Appleton girl and be updated about the snake.

Heather had Pamís home address, and as luck had it, she caught Pam coming home Sunday evening after a long, tough, fruitless day of looking through the swamps.

Pam was a serious enough looking girl, Heather decided at the first look, although she seemed rather sunburned and bedraggled. "I understand youíre the person whoís been carrying on the Gibsonís water snake investigation," she said by way of introduction.

"What there is of it," Pam said, a little surly and out of sorts. "It hasnít been going real well."

"Well, I wanted to talk to you about it," Heather replied, nonplussed. "Iím Heather Sanford, from the Defenders of Gaea. We funded your television surveillance program."

Pam brightened a little. "Iím sorry Iím such a mess," she said. "I was just on my way to change and go to the beach and rinse a little of this swamp scum off of me so I donít clog up the shower."

"Iíve got a beach by my place," Heather said. "Why donít you come on down, and we can both go for a swim and open a cold one, while you tell me all about it."

"That may be the best invitation Iíve had all month," Pam replied, a lot of the tiredness falling away. "Where are you? Iíll change, then drive down and meet you."

"Iíll drive," Heather offered. "That way we can talk on the way."

Pam was back in a couple of minutes, wearing a T-shirt over a swimsuit, carrying a towel. Heather stopped along the way, bought a six-pack of Hammís, and drove to her apartment. "I gotta change," she said. "Meet you on the beach."

The water was indeed cold, especially after Hawaii, but Pam didnít seem to mind. Sheíd already been in the lake for a while by the time Heather got over to the beach, and she was still in when Heather spread a towel out to let the warmth of the late-afternoon sun dry her out after just a short dip. When Pam did finally get out of the water, she spread out on her towel next to Heather, and accepted a cold beer.

"So," Heather said, getting down to business. "Whatís the story on the Gibsonís water snake?"

Pam shook her head, some of the exhaustion beginning to creep back in. "The story is that there doesnít appear to be any story," she said. "Other than that one specimen found back in April, I havenít seen a sign of one of them. I really thought that weíd find something with the TV surveillance, since that specimen was obviously living in the sewer system, but weíre more than halfway through with the surveillance project, and we havenít found a thing. The only thing I can think of is that if there is a colony of Gibsonís here, they only spend a part of the year in the sewer system, but Iíve spent plenty of time looking outside the system, and havenít seen a thing. Lots of water snakes, but nothing thatís even remotely close to a Gibsonís."

"We were led to believe there was a pretty large colony of them," Heather said.

"There could be," Pam said. "But, I havenít found it, yet. Thereís only that one specimen, and it really falls in the range of the color pattern of the northern water snake, especially considering the immaturity."

"So, youíre saying that there are no Gibsonís water snakes here?" Heather asked, a little disappointed. Sheíd been starting to get her teeth into the possibilities of this project.

"I didnít say that," Pam replied, taking a long swallow of beer. "I canít say that yet, and it would be foolish to do so. All I know is that there was a snake found in the sewer system that could be a Gibsonís. If I were to find more of them, then, yes, it would be possible to say for sure that theyíre here. On the other hand, Iím a long way from proving that there are definitely no Gibsonís water snakes here. Iím sorry, but thatís the way it is."

"But there was a snake here that could be a Gibsonís?"

"Yeah," Pam said. "A little black thing, about nine inches long."

"I know, I saw it in Minneapolis the other day," Heather said. "The Fish and Wildlife Service has declared this area an interim critical interest area as the result."

"Well, good," Pam said. "Maybe weíll have time to find out whether there is really a snake here before they do this sewer project," Pam said. "We know that there was a Gibsonís, or what could be a Gibsonís, in the system in the early spring, before the northerns are usually out, so that would seem to indicate that they spend part of the year in the sewers, if they exist at all. On the other hand, we could be missing the boat with the TV surveillance; they could be living back up some feeder where we canít get with the rat."


"The TV camera the guys use to inspect the sewer."

As Pam described the television surveillance program, Heatherís mind was working hard. Not having a proven colony of Gibsonís water snakes made the job a whole lot tougher, but, as Pam had said, there had been one here, and it couldnít be proved that there werenít any more, so it wasnít impossible, either. "I think I got it," Heather said finally. "All right, now I want you to explain to me the importance of this sewer system separation to the snake habitat."

*   *   *

Blake was waiting as Jenny walked down the boarding ramp into the arrival lounge at L.A. International. She was smiling, and he thought that was a good sign. "Welcome back," he told her. "You have a good trip?"

"Wonderful," she said. "Best time Iíve had in years. How did yours go?"

"Not so well," Blake admitted, "but, Iíll tell you about it later." He took Jennyís carryon, and they started down to the luggage pickup area.

As they walked along, Blake slowly became aware that Jenny was singing to herself, just low enough for him to hear. He couldnít make out the words, but Jenny singing to herself was just about unprecedented, and Blake was surprised to hear it. "You do sound like youíre in a good mood," he couldnít help but commenting.

"I had a good time," Jenny said. "Got a couple things worked out. Iíve been thinking, Blake. Letís shake around, come up with a little new material, something I can work on to take a break from shooting the next couple of months."

"I donít know what it is about the air back there," Blake said, "but it sure sounds like it made you a demon for work."

"Itíd be fun to do some new things," Jenny replied. "Whatís the schedule look like? I know this movie is going to keep me going through the middle of September, and thereís that Australia-New Zealand tour the end of the month and the first part of October, but am I going to be clear enough to go back home for a week or two toward the end of October?"

"I think so," Blake said, still wondering what had happened to her. "It is now, anyway. Knox called, oh, Thursday or Friday, and heís interested in you doing a couple weekend dates in Vegas in October."

"The hell with Vegas. I want to go home in October. Iíve got some business to take care of there, and this time, I want you to come with me."

They arrived in the luggage pickup area, and couldnít talk for a minute or two. They found Jennyís luggage quickly and headed out for the short-term parking before Blake could comment, "If you want me to go to Spearfish Lake, then you had some trouble."

"There was a little, but nothing my friends couldnít handle," Jenny admitted.

"It wouldnít have something to do with a crew from Hollywood Tonight, would it?"

"Howíd you hear about that?" Jenny said, getting in the car.

"I had a call from a guy who heard from a guy who heard from another guy that Hollywood Tonight crew got worked over by some cops and dumped in a swamp, and barely escaped with their lives."

"I didnít have anything to do with it," Jenny said. "Well, not much, anyway. Thatís what I like about Spearfish Lake. Iíve got friends there, friends who will take care of me and stick by me. Blake, no criticism, but you couldnít have handled it that well."

"Iím not sure I want to hear the whole story," Blake said. "I think this falls in the category of Ďwhat I donít know wonít hurt meí. Well, anyway, this guy said the two guys on the crew told Hollywood Tonight to take their job and shove it."

"Hey?" Jenny said, realizing something. "Howíd you hear about that? You said you had a call a couple of days ago, and that Knox called you last week. I thought you were up in the Bay Area, cruising the bars."

"Like I said, my trip didnít go as well as yours. I got up there, and you know what? I guess Iíve been hanging around you too long. I found that I just wasnít interested. After a couple of nights, I realized that I was bored with it. Of course, AIDS has got everybody running scared up there, too, and that doesnít help much. So finally, I said the heck with it, went back to Malibu, laid around the house, and did a little surfing. Kind of relaxing, but not what I intended."

Jenny put her hand on his shoulder as he pulled out onto the freeway. "Donít let it get you down. Maybe it all worked out for the best. You look pretty good, yourself."

"All the laying around on the beach and the surfing, even though the beach scene isnít what it used to be, either."

"Do you know how long Iíve been in California, and Iíve never yet been on a surfboard? Would you take me surfing sometime, Blake?"

"Sure," he said. "Itís just you never asked."

"I always wanted to," Jenny said. "But there never was any time. I was always too busy. That is going to change."

Something was definitely wrong, Blake realized. Well, not wrong, but different. With the schedule she faced the next couple of months, he would have expected Jenny to be pretty morose. Yet, here she was chipper, about as up as heíd ever seen her. "Whatís got into you?" he asked. "Youíre sure not the Jenny I saw when you left."

"Well, I hope Iím not. I spent a lot of time lying around and thinking," she reported. "Mike and I had a long talk, two or three times, and I guess he made me realize that Iíve been working too hard. The more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right. Blake, youíre going to have to help me with Knox, but over the next few months, Iím going to tail off doing this penny-ante stuff, like that show at Vegas. I donít need that kind of exposure, anymore. Then, when we go back to Spearfish Lake in October, Iím either going to buy a house, or look for the right piece of land and have Uncle Brent build me a house. By next summer, I intend to be living in Spearfish Lake, not here in L.A. Iíll come out here when I have to, but go home when I donít."

"Iíve heard that for years," Blake said, his eyes on the idiot driver ahead of them.

"I mean it, this time," Jenny said. "Jenny Easton is going to go back to Spearfish Lake."

"This Mike? Is he married? Have you got something going?"

"Mike isnít married," Jenny teased, "and heís kind of cute."

"I knew there was something there."

"We do have something special," Jenny went on. "I held the hand of the girl heís been living with for the last twelve years, while she had their third kid. Theyíre married in everything but the name, but theyíre both old friends. Mike is the first person who told me I could sing professionally, and heís the guy who organized running those Hollywood Tonight guys out of town."

"Not the first unmarried pulp logger who called you ĎJennifer Evachevskií, huh?" Blake smiled. It was strange to have Jenny pulling his leg. Nice, but strange.

"Heís a nice guy, Blake. Youíll like him."

"Me? I thought you were the one who was going to move back to Spearfish Lake?"

Jenny turned in her seat to face him. "Blake, some things are going to change, but Iím going to need you doing what youíre doing, just as bad as ever. My friends were nice and helped me out this time, but I canít ask them to run off everybody who comes to town with a camera. Thereís going to be a lot of things that wonít change."

"But, Jenny . . . "

"Donít Ďbut Jennyí me," she said. "I know you think youíre not going to fit in there, and you may have to keep it in the closet while youíre there, for a while, anyway. But, itís not like weíre married, or anything. What you do on your vacation is your own business, like it is now."

"I donít know, Jenny. Weíll see."

*   *   *

A quarter mile from Mark and Jackieís house, Josh and the others could look out in the field to their left and see four dogs dragging a four-wheel ATV up a path cut through the grass. It was still light enough to see Mike McMahon was the one riding the ATV, and through the open window, they could hear him yell, "Haw, Cumulus, haw!"

Josh parked the car and they got out. They could see people sitting around a picnic table in back of the house, so they walked out there and found Mark and Jackie along with Kirsten, who had her blouse open to feed Susan. Farther away, Tiffany and Henry were throwing a Frisbee around. "Hi, stranger," Jackie said. "Been wondering when youíd find your way out here again."

"Weíve been busy," Josh admitted, and went on, "We came out to see if we could get a look through the fourteen-inch."

"Got to get through with the dogs, first," Mark said. "Itís going to take a little while. Mike just got started, and he hasnít had time to work with them for a while."

"Yeah," Kirsten said. "Between the sewer thing and little bottomless pit here, weíve been keeping him busy."

"So this is Susan, huh?" Amy said. "Weíve been hearing about her. I missed her the other night." She didnít say so, but sheíd been in the back of the room with a very nervous Josh, watching Jennyís show.

The girls made cooing noises and clustered around Kirsten and the baby, while Josh found a seat at the picnic table, and Danny sprawled on the ground.

They watched Mike ride around the field behind the dog team. "They seem to be coming along pretty well," Josh commented.

"I could stand for better," Mark said. "Cumulus makes a pretty good leader, but none of the other dogs work real well in double lead. Redís the best, but heís bigger than Cumulus, and when he makes a wrong move, Cumulus canít overpower him. With four dogs, we have to just about run a double lead, or the team gets unbalanced."

"Goddamn it, Red, I said gee!" came floating across the field to underscore Markís comment.

"King seems to be fitting in pretty good, but heís dumber than a post," Mark said. "Heís big enough to run wheel, and he seems to be working out pretty well. I hope Iím wrong, but I doubt that heís ever going to make a command leader."

Jackie looked up from the cooing over Susan. "So much for ĎOn, King! On, you huskies!í" she smirked.

"What are you going to do with them?" Danny asked. "Race them?"

"Oh, we might try a race sometime, but these arenít speed dogs," Mark replied. "Mostly, just run around in the woods, up and down the trail. Maybe try some winter camping. Somehow, it seems more satisfying than bar hopping with a snow machine."

"Not that youíve ever gone bar hopping with a snow machine," Jackie commented.

"I know it doesnít make a lot of sense," Mark said to Jackie, as much as to anybody, "but itís been a lot of fun, so far."

"It does look sort of like fun," Marsha commented. "Of course, it looks like youíd spend a lot of time looking at the south ends of a bunch of northbound dogs. Whatís the chances of getting a ride?"

"Theyíre not good enough on the trails to take someone for a ride," Mark told her. "Thatís why I cut the trails into the field, to give them the idea theyíre supposed to run along prepared trails. Maybe later, I can run Cumulus in single lead and I can take you down the runway. Cumulus and Red and Midnight run under pretty good control, now."

"Could I learn how to do that?" Josh asked. "I mean, run a dog team?"

"Itís not real hard," Mark told him. "In fact, Iíd be happy to have someone else to run the dogs. We need to work them a little every day, and now with Susan here, Mikeís not available a lot of the time."

"Watch it, Josh," Jackie warned. "Heís trying to hook himself another dog musher to get thrown off the ATV out on the trails."

"That only happened once," Mark protested. "I didnít see that pothole."

Just then, Mike turned the team off the trail and up to the group, shouting, "Whoa, Cumulus! Whoa, Red!" The team came to a stop, not far from the picnic table.

"Hey, thatís great," Kirsten said, looking up from Susan. "Theyíre actually stopping when you tell them to stop."

"Theyíre tired enough to listen to commands," Mike said. "That first ten minutes, though . . . "

"Hey, thatís interesting," Amy said. "I thought you used reins to steer the dogs."

"No," Mark told her. "Itís all done by voice commands to the leader. The only problem is that you have to teach the leader to take commands, and thatís harder than it sounds."

"You want to take them out for a while?" Mike asked.

"The kids here would like a ride," Mark said. "Letís take King out and move Red back to wheel, and Iíll give íem a run down the runway, like we did with Tiffany and Henry last week."

It only took Mike and Mark a couple of minutes to move the dogs around. "All right, whoís first?" Mark called.

"Iíll go," Marsha volunteered.

"All right," Mark said. "Weíre going to have to do this like weíre riding double on a motorcycle. Mike could have his kids riding in front of him, but you guys are too big for that. Hang on tight. This is going to be wilder than it looked."

One by one, Marsha and Amy and Danny and Josh got short rides up the runway. When it came time for Joshís turn to climb on behind Mark, he was amazed at how fast the acceleration was when Mark called, "Hike!" The dogs took off at a fast pace.

"I thought you said these were slow dogs," he said, hanging on to Markís back.

"Theyíre pretty fast for a short distance. A racing team would be faster, and for a longer ways," Mark said, then yelled to the dogs, "Easy! Easy! Now, gee! Gee! Gee, Cumulus!"

The lead dog led the team in a wide right turn; in but a few seconds more, Mark was commanding them to come to a stop. With the help of the brakes on the ATV, they managed to stop close to the picnic table again.

"You like that?" Mark asked as Josh clambered off the back of the ATV.

"That was fun," Josh said. "I think Iíd like to learn more about it."

"What do you think, Mark?" Mike asked. "You think we should run them around the trail one more time?"

"Yeah, guess so," Mark said. "Try to take it easy, but donít keep them out long. Letís get King back onto the gangline, though. He needs more work. Maybe leave Red here."

"Sounds good." In seconds, they traded Red for King, and Mike was off onto the trails through the field again.

"Nice to watch someone else bouncing around for once," Mark said as he sat back down at the picnic table. "Iím really looking forward to snow. Itíll be fun to use the sleds."

"That sounds like fun," Josh admitted.

"Still think youíre interested in this?" Mark asked.

Josh was unable to say why, but the thought of working with the dogs seemed fascinating. Somewhere in his mind, there was the image of plowing down a snowy trail on a crisp winterís day, with a long team of dogs snaking down the trail in front of him. "Iíd love to," he said.

"Look, Josh, Iíll tell you what," Mark offered. Iíll give you a couple books on dog mushing, and you read them over and tell me what you think. If you still want to do it, weíll try it some evening."

"Sounds good to me," Josh said.

"Well, all right," Mark smiled. "Letís go open the dome, then we can help Mike put the dogs away. Itís still going to be a while before itís dark enough to see much in the sky, though."

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