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 24

Something had changed, Josh realized as he looked out the window from the firemanís seat of the Rock. It was subtle, but it had changed, and he was sure of it.

Things hadnít been quite the same in the little group of Marsha and Danny and Amy and himself since the night the week before, out at West Turtle Lake. He and Amy had stayed in the water of the lake for a long time, still hugging and kissing until their feet got cold. Afterwards, theyíd wound up on the sand of the little bay, sitting and hugging, and eventually they got cold enough to get their clothes on, more for warmth, than anything else, both of them wondering what was going on in the back seat of the Chevette, and neither of them wanting to bring the subject up.

The way Danny and Marsha had burst out of the Chevette, with clothing in disarray and a cry of, "All right, letís go swimming," hadnít told them a thing, and neither had the way the two had snuggled in the back seat, all the way back to Spearfish Lake. Amy had ridden back with Joshís arm around her, but it was a different Amy, a little more distant. It was a different Danny, a different Marsha Ė and a different Josh, as well, he realized.

"God, it would have been so easy," he said to himself over the roar of the Rockís diesel, but softly enough that only he could hear his words, which also echoed in his mind. For the thousandth time, he went over his decision. Half the time, he knew heíd done the right thing, and half the time, he kicked himself for turning down the opportunity, but the deed was done Ė or undone, actually, but somehow, he knew there would be no turning back.

Still, he couldnít help but wonder what had happened in the back seat of the Chevette. Danny wasnít saying, and Marsha wasnít either. Josh had tried to lead Danny into some discussion, some hint, maybe half a dozen times, but Danny wasnít taking the bait. The only hint that Josh was getting was that Danny and Marsha seemed closer than ever, but that was hardly proof.

"Youíre pretty quiet over there today," Bud said from the throttle. It wasnít the first run Josh had made with Bud, even though Bud tried to keep himself off of the schedule whenever possible. Sometimes, in the summer, he just had to fill in. "Howís football practice going?"

"Just drills this week," Josh said, dragging himself away from his thoughts about his friends. "We break out the pads Monday."

"Howís it looking?" Bud asked.

"Pretty good, so far," Josh said. "We scrimmage against Warsaw the end of next week, and weíll have a better idea then."

"Youíre a running back, right?"

"Yeah," Josh told him. "The only thing is, I donít expect Iíll play a lot. They brought me up from JVs last year, but I pretty much was on the bench. Theyíve still got a lot of senior backs, so I donít expect thereíll be a lot of room for me this year, either."

"I keep forgetting youíre only a junior," Bud said. "You planning on playing football in college?"

"Not unless I get an athletic scholarship," Josh replied over the roar of the engine. He hadnít thought it out that far, but now that it was said, at least that much made sense. "In fact, Iím not real sure Iím going to college."

"I never made it," Bud said. "Back in my day, they werenít quite as liberal with scholarships as they are today. So, I joined the Army right after I got out of high school. Had to get away from the grocery business. Well, let me tell you, after a year in Vietnam, the grocery business looked pretty darn good. I stayed with groceries until this railroad thing came up. It worked out all right."

"Iím just not real sure I want to go to college," Josh replied.

"They been letting you run these things?" Bud asked.

"A bit," Josh said. "Dad and John have let me run them some, and Diane let me take a load of empties from Camden up to Pit the other day."

"Well, then, thereís no reason why you canít run this thing while I go hit the head," Bud said. "Thereís no crossings or anything for the next ten minutes or so, but keep an eye out for deer." He got up from his seat, and Josh moved over to the engineer position.

It was the first time heíd actually run the motor alone. Every time before, his dad or John or Bruce or Diane had been right next to him. Even though the Rock was lumbering along at about twenty-five, lightly loaded, it was a thrill to be able to run it himself, even more thrilling than when Mark had let him harness up three dogs and take them out by himself.

Bud was back in just a few minutes. Josh started to get up, but Bud settled into the firemanís seat. "Go ahead and run it for a while," Bud told him. "I learned back during the Warsaw fire how important it is to have all the brakemen know how to run the motors, even if itís just a little bit. John was just a brakeman then, but he saved our butts."

Josh had heard the story before. At the time, Bud and Joshís dad had been the only people in town qualified as engineers, and Joshís dad had been so sick with the flu he could hardly stand up. After everybody was falling over from lack of sleep, the only way that they could keep going was for Bud to get the train going, then go to sleep while John ran the easy parts, and wake Bud up when the going got tough. John was running the local switching in Camden now, with an occasional road run. "Iíve learned a lot about braking with John," Josh said, more to head off the familiar story than anything else.

"You should," Bud said. "He and Bruce are the only people weíve got who have worked as a brakeman anywhere else. John was a damn good brakeman when he came here, and he taught all of us a lot. Thatís why heís down in Camden. He knows all those switching tricks that we rarely use up here."

"You mean, like a flying switch?"

"Has he done one of those with you?" Bud frowned. "Thatís pretty damn dangerous, with your level of experience."

"No," Josh said. "He just explained to me how itís done."

Bud shook his head. "I wish heíd quit doing that," he said. "One of these days, someoneís going to miss a grab iron, fall and hurt themselves, and weíll have a carload of something fragile bang against the stops hard enough to break something. But," he rationalized, "heís got the experience to get away with it."

"He says when he does it, he usually has the brakeman running the engine, while heís on the ground."

"Well, if he busts his ass, itís his own ass that gets busted," Bud said. "You like braking?"

"Yeah," Josh said. "Itís a lot of fun."

"You like to keep at it through the fall?" Bud asked. "I realize, with school and football, youíre not going to have a lot of time, but weíre going to be staying real busy right up through about November, when the pits close. Then, weíll just be busy."

"Iíd like to," Josh said. "Itís going to be awful tough, with all the football practices, though."

"If youíre just going to be warming the bench, then maybe there isnít the need to make every practice," Bud suggested. "I can talk to Coach Hekkinan about it, if you want to work some."

"It gets dull, getting suited up for every game and knowing youíre not going to be playing much, if at all," Josh said. "I still wouldnít be able to put in the hours Iím working now."

"I know that," Bud said. "Weíll work you when you can. Iíll talk to Hekkinan about it. I think heíll understand."

"Well, yeah, then, Iíll be glad to work when I can. I really like this, you know."

Bud flipped over the germ of an idea in his mind, and came up with the realization that it was still too half-baked to bring up. "You ever think about doing this when you get out of school?" he asked. "You know, braking, engine service, maybe diesel maintenance?"

"Not till this summer," Josh said, noticing a crossing was coming up, and reaching for the whistle cord. "But, I keep thinking that there are a lot worse things I could do."

"There are," Bud said. "Running a grocery store is one of them." His last words were drowned out by the Rockís whistle, as Josh blew for the crossing.

*   *   *

"Whatís on your mind, Chief?" Musgrave asked Kutzley.

"Well, I hope Iím not taking you away from anything," Don asked. "With this rain, I know youíve got concerns about the plant."

"Itíll hold for a while," Jack replied. "The rainís supposed to let up this afternoon, and itís been dry, so we may not overflow."

"Well, good," Don said. "This probably wonít take long." He leaned back in his chair, and put his hands behind his head. "Iíve been thinking about this whole snake and sewer thing since we met with that Sanford girl last week."

"It does seem like too good an answer, just to come out of the bathtub drain, so to speak," Jack agreed.

"Thatís it in a nutshell," Kutzley said. "I know that Blackbarn and the Fish and Wildlife Service can tie the EPA up for a while, but thereís a great big loophole there, and sooner or later someoneís bound to see it. I know it didnít take me long."

Musgrave shook his head. "You got me on that one, chief."

"Damn, itís so simple. What if the EPA comes along and says, ĎOK, you got snakes, so what? Weíre still going to fine you if the plant overflows.í"

"You mean, we donít care where it comes from, all weíre concerned is the output. How you solve it is your problem?"

Kutzley nodded. "Thatís it, exactly. They can say, donít harm the snake, donít overflow the plant, you solve it or weíll fine you. How the hell do we solve it?"

The waste water treatment plant manager cradled his chin in his hand. "Thatís a tough one, for an off-the-top-of-the-head answer."

"Well, we gotta be thinking about it."

Musgrave shrugged. "Well, we can work on the system a little, maybe cut inflow by ten or twenty percent. Do it quietly, and maybe nobody will notice. That wonít solve the problem, but it will help."

"It might, and it might not. Assume that weíre going to have to file an environmental impact statement every time we do anything to the system."

"Could it get that bad?"

"Yes, it could. That Sanford girl was all sweetness and light last week, and for the moment, sheís on our side. I can tell you this much about the Defenders of Gaea. Theyíre going to be on our side just as long as their interests and ours coincide. Their interest is the snake, and they have a real talent at making a pain in the ass of themselves. Iíve asked around."

"She seemed real helpful."

"She did, indeed. She gave us a straw to grasp at. But, you ever hear of the snail darter?"

"That was ten years ago," Musgrave said, "but Carter really looked like an idiot on that."

"Wasnít real difficult for him," Don said. "I can give lectures on that subject, but thatís beside the point. Assume we canít touch the system. How do we keep the plant in compliance?"

"Well, just talking, the easiest answer is to build a bigger plant," Musgrave said. "Of course, thereís a whole list of drawbacks to that."

"Yeah, the money."

"It wouldnít be cheap," Musgrave said. At todayís market, weíve got maybe a five or six million-dollar plant right there. Weíd have to triple the flow capacity, but itís not like weíd need three of what weíve got; thereís some things that we wouldnít have to duplicate, but at a guess, youíre still looking at eight to ten million."

"After the way people went up over a five million-dollar system, I donít want to think about what would happen if we told them the alternative was a ten million-dollar plant."

"The money isnít the only problem," the plant manager went on. "You get a problem with keeping the process going in flows with fluctuations that big. Itís all a biological process after all, and it changes at biological rates. You take a plant that big, and you run it at a low rate, and all of a sudden you get a big slug of water, and youíre out of compliance, even if youíve got the theoretical capacity. Thatís really a more serious problem than the money."

"That doesnít solve anything."

"Yeah, in that respect, weíre better off with our current plant," Musgrave said. "The problem is controlling the inflow. I played around with an idea on that, one time. I didnít get very far with it, because there are a lot of problems. None of them are impossible, at least technically, but it might be a solution."

"What?"

"A retention pond. When the flow gets so big we canít handle it, we pump it off to the pond. When the inflow dies out, we take the pond back down and process it. Build the pond big enough, and we stay in compliance, unless we get to where we need an ark."

"Sounds easy enough," Kutzley said, brightening.

"It sounds easy enough," Musgrave agreed. "But, when you start looking at it, there are a lot of problems."

"Name a few."

"Well, first off, you need a big pond. The maximum overflow we get is around twenty million gallons a day. The pipes just canít pass any more than that, not with the fall theyíve got. So, worst case, letís say we have to stand off a five-day flow of that size. That means, the retention pond capacity has to be around a hundred million gallons. You got a piece of scratch paper?"

Kutzley handed the plant manager a sheet of paper. Musgrave started running some figures. "All right," he said after a moment. "Cover an acre with water a foot deep, thatís around 325,000 gallons. For easier figuring, letís make that 330,000 gallons. That means you need three acres for a million gallons, or three hundred for a hundred million. You wouldnít want to mess around with a pond that big and that shallow, since the rainfall into it would be a very significant part of the total. So, make it ten feet deep when full, and thatís thirty acres."

"Thatís not so bad," Kutzley said. "Thirty acres is not a real big pond."

"Itís not a regular pond," Musgrave said. "We just canít go out and throw up a ten-foot berm around thirty acres and call it good enough. Remember, this is raw sewage weíre talking about. Pretty dilute, probably, but still raw sewage, so we have to protect the ground water. Most places if someone did something like that, theyíd line it with clay, but we donít have enough clay around here to matter, so weíd probably have to pave it with asphalt or concrete."

"Ouch."

"Yeah, and thatís just the beginning. We wouldnít want to have it very close to town, since this thing is going to get rather smelly at times. Letís face it, itís not going to be a tourist attraction for scenic Spearfish Lake. So, weíve got to build it three or four miles out of town, with a pretty good pipe connecting it. We canít build it in a wetland, for obvious reasons, including seepage and wetland protection, so itíll have to be high. That means a hell of a pump, one that can pump up maybe fifteen or twenty feet, at twenty million gallons per day. Then . . . hey, thereís a thought I never considered."

"Whatís that?"

"Thereís a power company here in Michigan that does something like that. Pumps water uphill when theyíve got an excess of generating capacity, and then when capacity gets tight, they let it run downhill again, generating electricity, like a big battery. I bet we could sell at least a part of the power we buy back to the power company, or use it to run the plant. That could make a real savings."

"Maybe youíre on to something," Kutzley said.

"Oh, thereís still a lot of problems. It ainít gonna be cheap, and the DNR would have to approve, and if it ever did get full, it would take a long time to draw back down and process. Like I said, itís technically feasible, but thereís a lot of problems."

"Iíd like to see a little bit better look at it," Kutzley said. "I just got a feeling weíre going to need a back-up position. I know youíre no engineer, but I want you to sit down and firm those numbers up a little. Doesnít have to be real good, but good enough to see if maybe there might be something there. Can you do that?"

"Sure. If all youíre looking for is ball yard stuff, I can probably have something for you in a week or so."

"Good," Don said. "Take your time, but donít let anyone know what youíre working on. Thereís no point in letting anyone know what weíre thinking about and making a stink without knowing the whole story. And, if the EPA doesnít find out weíre thinking about it, so much the better."

*   *   *

When Jenny was working on the movie set, there really wasnít a lot for Blake to do. Makeup came early, and the days were long, shooting scenes over and over. Still, Blake tried to stay around Jenny, in case he was needed, and it could get pretty boring. Heíd learned long before to take a book with him, but even with a book, the twelve- and fourteen-hour days could get boring, indeed.

Some days, though, he wouldnít be around the set all day. He could get the shopping in, and occasionally do a little exploring around the lot, but heíd seen movies made before, and it was nothing new to him.

It was going a lot better with Jenny than heíd ever expected it could have. Whatever it was sheíd done on her vacation at home in Spearfish Lake seemed to be sticking with her. She was always bright and cheerful on the set, but that was Jenny, and there was none of the depression heíd found at home on the days after shooting on her past movies. It made life a whole lot easier for him, and he wasnít complaining.

Even Knox hadnít been able to puncture Jennyís good cheer. She had turned him down flat on the October weekends in Vegas, and even though he called or wrote letters frequently, trying to get her to change her mind, she stood firm, and Blake watched in wonderment.

Of course, Jenny was tired when he drove her home Ė the long days really were boring for her, too Ė but she didnít seem unhappy. To make things go a little easier, they stopped off at restaurants or fast food places on the way back to Malibu, but often shortly after they arrived, he was at the piano, trying out new arrangements with Jenny. "Iíve never seen you work this hard," he commented once.

"I have to keep reminding myself that Iím really a singer," she said. "Onstage, I stand up in front of a crowd, and I donít get a chance to screw things up. It has to be right the first take. In movies, this stuff of shooting over and over Ė well, it takes a little music to get it out of my system."

Thursdays were still good days, though, Blake realized. That was the day that the Spearfish Lake Record-Herald arrived by next-day air, and everything came to a screeching halt while Jenny pored through it. Though she still read every word, Blake noticed that she now really gave close attention to the real estate ads. "You havenít given up on going back, have you?" he asked one Thursday night.

"Stronger than ever," Jenny replied. "By next spring, I should be pretty well through with all the piddly stuff. If Iím lucky, we should be able to do the worst of the moving in March, then weíve got the European tour, and thatís one of those things Iíd do, anyway. But, we should be able to spend the best part of spring and all of summer at Spearfish Lake."

"You know," Blake said. "You ought to think about keeping this house. Youíre still going to be spending a lot of time in L.A."

"No," Jenny said. "If I have it, Iíll be tempted to live here. Letís find a little apartment in the hills, just small enough to be a bit uncomfortable. Thatíll remind me that I really donít want to be here, if I get tempted."

"Are you done with the Record-Herald yet?" Blake asked. "If Iím going to be living there, maybe I ought to start reading it. Itíd help me to know a little about the place."

"Pretty well done," Jenny said, handing him a part of the paper. "Hereís the front section. I want to go over the real estate ads some more. Itís too bad thereís such a time difference; Binky Augsberg has got a house here it would be interesting to call her on."

Blake picked up the paper, and began to glance it over. The lead story was Snake stymies sewer system, and he began to read the story of the meeting in the city managerís office.

"This Sanford person the Defenders of Gaea sent to Spearfish Lake seems to be a pretty sharp cookie," he commented.

"Doesnít she, though? The way I read that, if she can stop the EPA from forcing the city to have to do the sewer system, itíll save the taxpayers a lot of money. If that happens, Iím going to be real glad that I staked them."

"It seems to be working out, so far," Blake said. "I halfway figured that the Defenders would be a pain in the ass for the city, but it doesnít seem to be working out that way."

"Speaking of the Defenders," Jenny said, "have I gotten the monthly report from them yet? Itís due."

"If youíd look at the rest of your mail, something besides the Record-Herald, youíd see thereís an envelope from them here today," Blake told her.

"Well, hey, first things first," Jenny smiled as she put down the paper. "Where is it?"

"In that pile beside you," Blake told her.

Jenny dug through the pile of envelopes. They were all personal and business; fan mail went to the studio or the recording company, and both places had staffing to deal with most of it. She opened the envelope from the Defenders, pulled out the report, and went over it quickly.

There was a cover letter from McMullen, which basically said that their representative had arrived in Spearfish Lake, and had already made good progress in the work to save the snake, and thanking Jenny once again for her support. Attached was a copy of Heatherís report to McMullen, which detailed her work with the Athens University investigator and the progress sheíd had with the city government. The upshot was that the city government was considering joining with the Fish and Wildlife Service in a lawsuit in federal court to bar the EPA from taking action to enforce the sewer project.

"Thatís wonderful news," Jenny said. "Thereís not much there that I didnít already know from the Record-Herald, but itís good to see that theyíre on the job."

"They seem to be," Blake agreed, looking on down the front page.

"Look," she said. "Weíve got a full shooting script tomorrow, so itíll probably be hard to break away. Could you call up McMullen at the Defenders, and tell him that Iím pleased with this report. Iím sure heíll be glad to hear it."

"Sure will," Blake said. What he didnít add was that if he called the Defenders, rather than McMullen, there was a good chance that a pitch for more money wouldnít get through to Jenny.

"Thanks, Blake," Jenny said. "Youíre a dear. What would I do without you?"

"Youíd get along," Blake said, leafing through the paper. Much of it was meaningless to him, since he didnít know the people or the places involved, but it would be good to at least be familiar with it, if he was going to have to live there.

"Not as well," Jenny said, turning back to the Record-Herald classifieds. "Damn, I like the sound of that," she said after a minute. "Point Drive, on five acres. I wonder if that could be Elmer Sorensenís old house. Itíd be just about perfect."

"Youíre asking the wrong person," Blake said.

Jenny glanced at her watch. "Itíll be almost midnight there if I called now," she said. "Binky will probably be in bed."

"Call her in the morning," Blake suggested. "With the time difference, she ought to be at her office before we have to leave for the studio."

"Good idea, Blake," Jenny said. "If thatís Elmer Sorensenís place, itíd be just about what Iím looking for."



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