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 23

Kutzley got the message early on that this was going to be a bigger than normal council meeting, so he had Harry Masterfield roll out all the fire engines from the fire barn, and had a crew from the Department of Public Works bring a truckload of chairs over from the school and set them up.

Mikeís story in the Record-Herald the week after the first one hadnít done much to settle down the anger in Spearfish Lake, or at least in parts of it Ė the parts shown in red shading on the two-color map of the town, run on the front page.

"Do you think we can get a sitter?" Kirsten had asked. "Iíd kind of like to see this."

"Itís going to be a zoo," Mike told her. "If they manage to get anything accomplished tonight, itíll be a miracle."

"I donít want to miss it," she said. "Iíll call out to the club and see if Amy or Marsha would like to sit."

"Do that, and youíll have Josh and Danny over here too, and the refrigerator will never take it," Mike snorted. "But, if you want to go, thatís probably the best idea."

"What time?"

"The meeting starts at 7:30, but weíd better have the kids here by 6:30," Mike told her. "Weíll want to get there early, to get a good seat. One off to the side, out of the direct line of fire."

They made it to the meeting by a quarter to seven, and they were none too early. There was already a crowd, and there was an angry hubbub going on. "Here, save my seat," Mike said. "I want to get a couple pictures and get a feel for this thing.

From the people standing around outside, Mike suspected that there wouldnít be enough seats, even this early. He went into city hall, to find it surprisingly uncrowded, considering the circumstances. Ryan Clark, Ray Milliman, Jack Musgrave, and Don Kutzley were standing in front of a big map of the city, one that had the proposed special assessment district marked on it. Nobody was saying much of anything. "Whatís happening?" Mike asked.

"We got the engineering assessment back today," Kutzley said glumly. "Four point four million, now, but bids have been coming in high, so that could be too low by ten percent or so."

"Five million bucks, by the time everything gets said and done," Clark said. "The goddamn feds are quick enough to tell you to do something, but when it comes to burping up some money to help you pay for what they tell you to do, they never heard of you."

"Got a crowd out there already," Mike observed.

"Yeah," Clark said. "Linda didnít want me to run again, and I should have listened to her. Fourteen years on this council is long enough, anyway. Well, I suppose if we let them get it out of their system tonight, maybe we can do something constructive next time."

"Well, hey, good luck tonight," Mike said.

"Yeah," Milliman said. "Weíre gonna need it."

The council members had taken their seats a couple minutes before 7:30 when Hjalmer Lindahlsen arrived, the last councilman to get there. He eased in quietly, and took a seat at the end of the table set up at the front of the fire barn. "Well, we might as well get this basketball game started," Clark said to Kutzley, sitting next to him. He banged the gavel, and said into the microphone, "The second July meeting of the Spearfish Lake City Council is now in session. All rise for the Pledge of Allegiance." There was a scuffle of chairs as people stood; the councilmen stood too, and turned around to face the flag at the back of the room.

As soon as the pledge had been completed, people took their seats, but Clark remained standing. "Considering the subject matter . . . "

"Louder!" some bull voice roared from the back of the room.

"Considering the subject matter," Clark started over, "weíll dispense with the reading of the minutes and other regular . . .

"Louder, you asshole!"

"Thatíll be enough right there," Clark said angrily. "This is serious business here tonight, and I will not tolerate any demonstrations or remarks out of turn, and I will ask the police to eject anyone causing a disturbance. Is that clear?"

The room was silent. "Is that clear to you, back there in the back?" Clark said. He waited a moment, then went on, "All right. As I was saying, weíll dispense with the reading of the minutes and the regular order of business until . . . "

"Louder, jerk!"

Clark shook his head, pointed at Harold and LeRoy, who were standing by the door of the fire department office, and made a sign back over his shoulder with his thumb. The two cops started for the back of the room, and Clark continued, " . . . until after weíve discussed this sewer separation business. Now, what youíve read in the paper is basically correct, but just so weíre all talking about the same thing, I want to ask the city manager to go back over this thing from the beginning and bring us all up to date on whatís happened since the last council meeting."

Mike leaned over and whispered to Kirsten. "Trying to bore us to death, first."

It took Kutzley a good fifteen minutes to go over the history of the sewer separation project, the need for it, the attempts to get funding, the ultimatum from the EPA, and the engineering estimates. There was very little he said that hadnít been in the paper in the last two weeks, Mike noted to his satisfaction. Kutzley finished his presentation with: "Now, while I submit to council the fact that we can go ahead with this project and just charge everyone the full amount on their winter taxes, Iím sure that this would cause distress to a good many of the citizens. So I feel that we should at least explore the idea of going ahead and bonding for the project, to spread the cost out over ten years or more."

"Thank you, Don," Clark said. "Now, at this point, I want to throw the floor open for public comment, but I expect it to be orderly. Please raise your hand and be recognized." A forest of hands shot up; Clark could see that this was going to take a while. "Helen, letís start with you," he said.

Helen was one of the old bats who went to all the council meetings and griped under her breath about everything, and Clark knew that she was going to get her two bits worth in, no matter what. "Why didnít the council take action on this before something like this happened?" she asked.

"Weíve been trying to deal with it every year since Iíve been on Council," Clark said. "Weíve been trying to avoid a huge cost to the taxpayers. Obviously, we havenít been successful, but Helen, itís not from the lack of trying. Now, weíre being forced into this by the feds, whether we want to do it or not. Objectively, the problem is not that bad, but weíve been unable to convince the DNR or the EPA of that. Letís have another question."

A forest of hands shot up again, but Heatherís was not among them. She was sitting right in the center in the front, and had realized that the pot needed to simmer a while. Let them get all stewed up with the hopelessness of it all, she thought, then the snake can descend upon them like a savior, a straw of hope to grasp. It could take a while.

It got considerably uglier over the next forty-five minutes. Harold and LeRoy hauled three more people out of the meeting to give them a little discussion on the sidelines; one of them, whoíd had a few too many before the meeting, threw a punch at Harold, not the brightest of things to do under any circumstances. Quite suddenly, he was handcuffed and into the back of a police car, rather the worse for wear, and one of the part-time officers drove him across town to the county jail.

The meeting was starting to get out of hand. The questions got ruder and dumber, although the crowd was relatively quiet, given the presence of Harold and LeRoy, when Clark gave the floor to a woman in the front row he didnít know. The woman got to her feet, and said, so loudly and clearly that everyone in the room could hear her, "Mister Mayor, with all due respect, it would be a violation of federal law to build this sewer separation project."

"Iím sorry, maíam," Clark said. "Iím afraid I donít know who you are, and Iím afraid I donít follow you."

"Mister Mayor," she replied, although she knew she was talking to the crowd, "my name is Heather Sanford. Iím a representative of the national office of the Defenders of Gaea. The sewer system you have is believed to be the home of a critically endangered species of water snake, the Gibsonís water snake. Earlier this month, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared this city and the sewer system a Critical Interest Area under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. This means that the Environmental Protection Agency is not allowed to spend funds and force you to build this sewer system separation, and the fines for interfering with an endangered species are just as big as the EPA is threatening you with. I submit to you, Mr. Mayor, that it would be wise to tell that to the EPA."

"I never heard of such a thing," Kutzley said. "I mean, we got a notice a couple weeks ago about a Critical Interest Area, but the notice was pretty vague, and certainly never went into that kind of detail."

"Itís quite true," Heather said. "I would submit to you that youíre better off not building the sewer system separation."

Clark leaned over to Kutzley. "Does she have any idea what sheís talking about?"

"Beats the hell out of me," Kutzley whispered back. "Iíve never seen her before, but she sounds like she knows a heck of a lot more about the Endangered Species Act than I do."

Clark stood back up. "Mrs. . . uh, Sanford," he said.

"Miss Sanford," she chimed in.

"Miss Sanford, youíve got us on this one," Clark said. "I suspect you know more about this than we do. Iím sure there are people here who would like to talk to you more about this, and Iím one of them. However, in the meantime, I think it would be best to table any action on this matter until we can consider what youíve told us. Do I hear a motion to that effect?"

"So moved," Lindahlsen said.

"Second," Milliman agreed instantly.

"It has been moved and seconded that we table this issue until we can learn more about these Endangered Species ramifications," Clark said. "All in favor say ĎAyeí.

"Aye," all seven councilmen said.

"Opposed, no," Clark asked. There was silence. "All right. Iíd like to ask Don to assemble a committee of council persons and citizens to meet with Miss Sanford and see what this is going to mean. Iíd like to be on the committee, and . . . " he looked down the row of councilmen, to see a couple of hands raised. "And Ray and Hjalmer. Letís see if we can meet at ten tomorrow morning. That be all right?"

"Not really," Kutzley said. "I think we want the city attorney there, heís out of town but should be back later tonight. Iíll call him first thing in the morning."

"This ought to keep that long," Clark said. "Ten tomorrow, then. I think weíll want Jack Musgrave there, too." He looked across the room. "Mike McMahon, Iíd like you to sit in on this, too. I suspect a lot of people are going to want you to pass along what Miss Sanford has to tell us."

*   *   *

The days were noticeably getting shorter now; it was already dark as Josh and the others drove back toward Spearfish Lake from Albany River.

It had been another late-starting date. Football conditioning had started the first of the week, in the mornings, and then Josh had had to make a Kremmling turn, while Danny had done the way freight to Camden. Bud Ellsberg, the president of the Camden and Spearfish Lake, had been a football player once, and a pretty good one for the Marlins at that, so he knew the drill. He tried to cut Josh and Danny as much slack as he could with the scheduling, and had had a couple of words with Coach Hekkinan, an old teammate, about the times that the boys couldnít make it to practice.

"I donít know what I need conditioning for, anyway," Danny complained from the back seat. "Itís not like Iíve been sitting on my dead ass all summer. All that up and down off the engine, and all the volleyball Iíve been playing with Marsha, Iím already in game shape."

"Itís a pain in the butt," Josh agreed. "Heís got me scheduled for a night run tomorrow night, and Iíll get back just about in time for morning practice. After Iíve been up all night, Iím really going to be in great shape. Maybe I can con Bruce into running about an hour late."

"Fat chance of that," Danny said. "Bud wouldnít mind, but Dianeís a stickler for schedule and would be all over him if he ran late for the hell of it."

"Yeah, youíre right," Josh agreed. "But, Iím going to have to try and sleep during the day as much as I can, tomorrow. Then, before I go to work, I promised Mark Iíd go out and work the dogs with him. I tell you, thatís going to add up to one long potlicker of a night."

"Howís it going with the dogs?" Marsha asked.

"Oh, pretty good," Josh told her. "Mark let me take them out around the field trails by myself yesterday, and I can say that I walked away from it."

"All four dogs?" Danny asked.

"No, just Cumulus and Red and Midnight," Josh said. "Mark and Mike have given up on trying to get Red to run in double lead with Cumulus. Theyíre talking about getting another dog or two."

"Thatíll speed things up a little," Danny commented.

"Yeah," Josh said. "I read that book that Mark gave me about the Iditarod race, and in there, it talks about a guy taking off out of Anchorage with a twenty-dog team. I canít imagine trying to hold that many dogs down when theyíre hyper and wanting to run."

"Quite a ride, I bet."

"Yeah, itíd be an experience," Josh agreed. "Look, I kind of hate to bring this up, but itís too early to go home, and too late to start much of anything. Anybody got any ideas?"

"Well, I suppose we could cruise around town a little," Danny suggested.

"Big deal," Marsha said from her position, cuddled up under Dannyís arm. "How about if we sneak out and go skinny dipping again? We havenít done that in a couple of weeks."

"Yeah," Amy said. "That worked pretty well the last time. We go in the back way, and down to the beach in that little bay. Nobodyís likely to see us there."

"All right with me," Josh said.

There wasnít a lot of talking for the next few miles. Once or twice, in the lights of an oncoming car, Josh could see that there was a reason for it: in the back seat, Marsha and Danny had found something else to do with their mouths, and it looked like they were enjoying it. Amy was aware of what was going on, too; she laid her head on his shoulder, and he pulled her tight. The world seemed very fine, just then.

It still felt very daring for Josh to drive in the hidden back entrance of the West Turtle Lake Club, then down the access road across the golf course to the hidden little bay up the beach from the club proper. The route was totally out of sight of the main club buildings, and at the end wasnít much more than a faint trace of a grassy two-rut. Even so, Josh turned his lights off as soon as he dared, and backed the car into a patch of heavy brush.

When he shut the engine off, he turned to Amy to say "Weíre here," but the words never got out; her lips reached for his, instead, and it was more than just the little kiss on the lips that they had been sharing for a month or more. Her mouth was open, and Josh found his was, too. They shifted their bodies a little, to give each other a little better reach, and their hands started to wander.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Josh wondered if Marsha and Danny were aware, but he realized that the two in the back seat were too preoccupied with the same thing to care much. For that matter, Josh didnít care much about what they thought, either; he was too busy touching, fondling, kissing. His hand came to rest on Amyís breast; though cool to the touch through her blouse and bra, he felt his hand warming at the softness and firmness of it. As they kissed, he cradled it, played with it, and some unknowable time later, he became aware that the blouse had become unbuttoned.

Knowing somehow that he shouldnít, but helpless to resist, his hand reached around to unfasten her bra, and in what seemed like an instant he felt the firm, soft warmth of her bare breast, the delicate softness of what he knew now to be a small, pink nipple. He had plenty of time to explore its wonder before Amy shifted her position and pressed those wonderful warm breasts up against his own bare chest Ė bare, because somehow, his shirt had become unbuttoned. Still they kissed, as inseparably as ever, his incredible readiness pressing against her bare belly through his pants. She reached down, touching him through his pants, and he thought he was going to explode with wonder.

She pulled her mouth away, finally, and in a voice so low he could hardly hear it, whispered, "I think weíd better go swimming."

"I think so, too," Josh whispered back, not wanting to let go.

She took her hand away, and they kissed one last kiss before she broke away, opened her door, and got out, with Josh piling out the far side.

In the dim light, he could see Amy peeling her clothes off the rest of the way, and he did the same, standing naked before her in the darkness as she came around the car and took him by the hand. Together, they walked the few yards down to the beach, where she stopped. In an instant, they were in a clinch, arms around each other, naked flesh pressing against naked flesh, his hardness pressing up against her Ė not kissing, but just holding on to each other. "I donít think we should," she whispered, "but if you want to, I will."

It was the opportunity he had dreamed about Ė not just this summer, but for years. And yet, he knew he shouldnít do it. Not believing he could actually say the words, under the circumstances, he heard himself say, "Maybe weíd just better go swimming."

"Iím sorry, Josh," she whispered back, "but thanks."

*   *   *

This was going to be one Wednesday morning that he didnít have to mess around in the mail room, Mike thought to himself as he walked into Kutzleyís office the next morning, carrying a handful of the papers Webb had brought back from Camden. Fortunately, heíd been able to get that Sanford woman off into a corner following the meeting and get a little more detail about the Endangered Species Act and its impact on the sewer problem than what heíd heard at the meeting, so his story wouldnít make him sound like a total ninny.

Whatever he learned this morning would probably make everything obsolete, he knew. It was one of the perils of a weekly newspaper; sooner or later, something was bound to break on Wednesday morning, and it would be a week before he could report it.

Probably half of the meetingís attendees were already there, sitting around in chairs hauled into Kutzleyís office. Kutzley was behind his desk, getting worked over by Milliman. "What burns my butt," Milliman said, "is how something like this could happen, and we donít have any warning whatsoever."

"I gotta admit, they did send us a public notice," Kutzley said. "It was even in the Record-Herald. But, you read that notice, and it really doesnít say a thing. Thereís not a thing in there that says the snake is living in the sewer system, that the sewer system is part of their critical interest area, what the ramifications of a critical interest area are, or that they were in such a yank."

"Sounds like the damn government," Milliman said.

"Then, this notice we got the other day about the critical interest area, which didnít even say that much, just that one had been declared. Not a word about what it meant. Hell, I never heard of such a thing. I had to look it up at the library this morning."

"Yeah, but nobody ever heard of a damn Gibsonís water snake till now, when the damn thing crawls up out of the sewer."

"There could have been a better job done on the part of the Fish and Wildlife Service on keeping us informed," Kutzley said. "On something that doesnít mean anything, they send us a ton of paper. On something thatís important, we have to find out like this. Letís see, whoís missing?"

"That Sanford girl, and Hjalmer," Clark said.

"Hjalmer had an autoclave blow its zap out at the hospital this morning," Kutzley said. "He said heíll be along after he gets it working."

Just then, Heather stuck her head shyly in the door. "Is this the right place?" she asked.

"Sure, come on in, Miss Sanford," Clark replied.

"I brought Pam Appleton along with me," Heather said. "Sheís the investigator for Athens University on the snake project. I didnít think youíd mind."

"No, good," Clark said. "The more we know about the snake, the better. In fact, I think weíd better start with you bringing us up to speed on this snake."

"Well, briefly," Pam said. "This spring, a single specimen of a snake that we think is a Gibsonís water snake was discovered living in the sewer system, here in Spearfish Lake. Now, the Gibsonís water snake is a very rare, and we thought probably extinct subspecies of the northern water snake, which is common around here, but with distinct markings. The markings on this snake are thoroughly consistent with a Gibsonís water snake, but they would also fall barely in the limit of the range of markings for a normal northern water snake. Since then, Iíve . . . that is, we have, Miss Sanford has been working with me . . . weíve been unable to find other examples, in spite of the Defenders of Gaea funding an extensive television surveillance of the sewer system."

"Youíre saying that this critical interest area was declared over one snake?" Clark asked, incredulously.

"Thatís right," Heather said. "However, it could take years to confirm or deny whether there actually is a population of them living around here."

"You say this snake was found in the sewer system," Musgrave commented.

"Thatís what Dr. Gerjevic and I were told, down at Athens," Pam said.

"Just where was it found?" Musgrave asked.

"Iím embarrassed to say that I donít know," Pam said. "One of the teachers at the high school brought it to us. He said one of the other teachers brought it to him, and that some child had brought it to class."

"That snake could have come from anywhere," Blackbarn said. "Thatís pinning an awful lot on a mighty slim chain of evidence."

"Well, I know who it was," Pam said, "but he hasnít been speaking to me."

"Who was it?" Clark asked. "Iíll call him."

"John Pacobel," Pam said.

Mike was glad it was Clark who had volunteered to call. Heíd had to kiss Pacobelís ass enough over the years, first when he was the commander of the guard unit, then worse when the softball team won the state championship . . . but that wasnít why Mike had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Pam," he asked, "when was this snake found?"

"Late April, sometime. I donít know the date."

That just about confirmed the reason for the sinking feeling. "Donít bother calling Pacobel," Mike said. "Call Linda."


"Yeah, your wife. Ask her if sheís the one who gave the snake to Pacobel."

"You sure, Mike?"

"Iím sure. Call her."

Clark reached for the phone on Kutzleyís desk. In about thirty seconds, Mikeís suspicion was confirmed. "Whatís this all about?" Clark asked.

"Kirsten isnít going to like this," Mike said, "but thatís got to be the snake that crawled out of our bathtub drain when we lived here in town. It scared the shit out of her, and she broke her hair dryer killing it. Tiffany took it to school for show and tell. I never saw it myself, but she said it was a little black snake, with some gold on it."

"Thatís the one," Pam said. "Then, it definitely came out of the sewer system."

Kutzley nodded his head. "Well, we definitely had a snake, then, so, at least in the short term, thereís at least a possibly justified reason for a Critical Interest Area. That seems pretty solid to me. Now, that just takes us back to the question of how itís going to affect this EPA directive. It looks to me like weíve got two laws, or at least two bureaucracies, at odds on this. Miss Sanford, you say the Endangered Species Act will prevent us from building the storm sewer separation?"

"Iíll have to be honest and say no," Heather said. "The law does prevent federal agencies from expending funds that would threaten endangered species, directly or indirectly. The stamp on that letter the EPA sent you was probably sufficiently illegal."

"Thatís a rather fine point," Blackbarn said.

"Probably so," Heather conceded. "But lawyers are in the business of arguing fine points. In addition, the law does provide penalties for those who threaten an endangered species, and youíd certainly be in violation of the law if you went ahead with the system. Speaking as a representative of the Defenders, weíd have to fight you on that, in and out of court." There, it was out. She was more than a savior, she had teeth. There was no need for anyone to realize how hollow her threat was; McMullen and Harper probably wouldnít break loose the money for a major court fight. Best to let the city pay for it.

"Iím missing a point here, somewhere," Clark said. "Just what the Sam Hill does our building this separation system have to do with this snake?"

"I asked Pam the same question, the other day," Heather said. "She gave me a real good reply, so I think Iíll let her answer that."

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