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 25

It had been a long, hard, very unproductive day of hogging around in the swamps. As usual, Heather and Pam hadn’t seen any Gibson’s water snakes, and Heather was wondering more and more if it wasn’t a wild snake chase, after all.

She was tired and sunburned when Pam dropped her off at her apartment, clothes wet and muddy. She peeled them off and decided that a dip in the lake would be worth the effort. After all, this far north it wouldn’t be an option much longer. With that decision made, Heather took off the rest of her clothes, and then realized that she really ought to access the mainframe at the Defenders – actually it was a minicomputer but Harper and McMullen insisted it be called a "mainframe" to give added panache to the organization – to see if there were any messages. Maybe there would be a message from McMullen and Harper to give up, but there wasn’t much hope of that, yet.

She pulled out her laptop, booted it up, and then unplugged the cord from the telephone and plugged it into her modem. Rewardingly, there was some E-Mail for her, from Harper: "Dale was contacted by a representative of the funding source for your project yesterday," it said. "They are very pleased with the results so far. Says your report matches closely what was in the local paper, so it looks like you’ve got the locals on your side, pretty much. Keep up the good work."

That was kind of mixed news. It was good to know that Harper and McMullen appreciated the work she’d done on this project, but apparently, she’d have to keep it up. That wasn’t so good.

There were a couple of other messages, none of which were important. She’d been trying to do some work on her whale project, working through the files on the mainframe in California, but nothing concrete had come up. While being able to work with the computer at this distance solved a lot of problems, there was nothing like being there.

She sighed and exited the connection. Harper may have been pleased with her work, but she really hadn’t done much besides look for the snake ever since her meeting with Kutzley and the council people. The lousy snake was the weak point in the whole deal, anyway. There had been only the one snake, and there was no proof that it was even a Gibson’s water snake, anyway. They had never found another that resembled it, and sooner or later, someone was going to figure that out and confront the Fish and Wildlife Service with it. The one snake – iffy at that – was mighty thin evidence in Federal Court, she knew, but it was all they had to work with.

Right now, it looked like a battle between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the EPA, and there was a good chance that it could indeed wind up in court.

But that was neither here nor there, right then. She sat staring at the empty screen of the laptop, blinking the prompt at her, until finally she shut it off. She pulled on the bikini she’d gotten in Hawaii, grabbed a towel, and headed across the street to the beach.

The beach was only moderately busy this afternoon. As much as she’d been out in the sun, she didn’t want to stay in the water long, and it wasn’t very warm, anyway. It didn’t take her long to get cooled off and feeling refreshed, and all too soon, she found herself needing to get out of the sun, but with nothing in particular to do. As an interim measure, she found a shady spot under a tree along the road, spread her towel out, and sat down on it to look across the lake. Right in front of her, a couple of guys and a couple of girls were tossing a Frisbee around, enjoying the warm summer day. The boys were big and tanned and good looking; both of the girls had on tiny bikinis, and the long hair on the one blonde flowed with every movement; and for a moment, Heather envied them, wishing she were sixteen or seventeen again, without a care in the world. Looking at them made her feel lonelier than ever; it would have been fun to join them, but she was almost twice their age and didn’t know them.

"Hi, Heather," she heard a voice behind her say. "How are you doing?"

She turned to see John Pacobel standing next to her. "Getting along pretty good," she smiled. She’d seen John around a couple of times since that first evening in Spearfish Lake, but they hadn’t really stopped to talk. "Things are coming along," she added.

"Good," he said. "Glad to hear it. You’re sure making some waves in this town."

"Hey, look," she said, "I’m sorry I didn’t know you were the one who first identified the snake," she said. "There wasn’t any hint of it in any of the reports I read."

"It doesn’t surprise me," John said, sitting down next to her. "Pam doesn’t like me, and that creep Gerjevic obviously wants to pick up all the credit."

"I haven’t met him," Heather replied. "But Pam seems to think he’s some sort of deity, or something."

"Pam worships her heroes," John said, without going into details. "Actually, I shouldn’t take the credit on the snake, myself," he said. He raised his voice and yelled, "Hey, Josh! Danny! Come here a minute!

The boys with the Frisbee put it down, and they came over to where John and Heather were sitting in the shade, their two girl friends following along. "What is it, Mr. Pacobel?" the slightly smaller of the two boys said.

"I got someone I want you to meet," John said. "This is Heather Sanford. She’s here from California about that snake, last spring." He turned to Heather and said, "I realized that there was something that wasn’t right, but these two kids were who got me to thinking that it could be a Gibson’s. This is Josh Archer and Danny Evachevski. They were in my advanced biology class last spring."

"We read about you in the paper," Josh said. "You sure shook up that meeting."

"Pleased to meet you," Heather said. "If this works out, you’ve got something to be proud of. That was good work."

The shorter of the two girls, the one with the short, black hair, made a face. "Danny, what’s this about a snake?" she said.

"I’ll tell you later," Danny said. "It’s kind of interesting."

"Pleased to meet you, ma’am," Josh said. "Is that all you wanted, Mr. Pacobel?"

"Yeah," John said. "I just thought you’d be interested."

The kids went back to throwing the Frisbee around. "I didn’t know you were a teacher," Heather said.

"Biology, chemistry, and I coach a little," John said. "Those are a couple of good kids. I don’t know the girls. They’re not from around here. Must be summer people."

"That was nice of you," she said. "Pam never said anything about that."

"Doesn’t surprise me," John replied. I see you’ve been out with her a bit."

"Some," Heather said. "I’m not much of a herpetologist, but I can pick up logs while she looks under them. There’s really not a lot else to do at the moment."

"Must be a little boring," John said.

"It is," Heather admitted. "It’s not the sort of thing I’m used to doing. I’m more of an organizer, a catalyst, or a motivator, but this whole situation is a little different than anything I’ve done before."

"I’d like to hear a little more about what you do," John said. "It sounds like your job is a little more interesting than being just a school teacher."

"It has its bad moments," Heather said. "And, it has its dull ones, and I’m afraid I’m going through a dull phase right now."

"Anything does," John said. "Look, if you’re not doing anything tonight, maybe I could buy you dinner, and you could tell me about it."

Heather looked down at her bikini. Was this guy interested in what she did, or in the body she was showing off so brazenly? There had been a slick feel to John that she’d picked up on from the first, but maybe she’d read him wrong. It was certainly self-effacing of him to introduce her to those kids, giving them a share of the credit for identifying the snake.

And besides, she was lonely, and would be even lonelier if she had to go back to the apartment and spend the evening watching television by herself.

"Why not?" she said.

*   *   *

With two-a-days now under way, it was getting harder for Josh to fit work in around football practice. The practices were held in the mornings and evenings, to get around the peak of the August heat. Even so, it could get awfully uncomfortable, as it was this morning.

When Coach Hekkinan finally called, "Showers!" Josh was glad to have the practice over with. He hurried to the shower; he was going to have to hustle to make it over to the C&SL office on time. He knew that Bruce was bringing a load down from Pit, and Bud had promised to wait for him to take it on to Camden. Still, if Josh were late, it would cut into the time available for maintaining the diesels scheduled for after their return.

Even so, the shower felt cool and refreshing this morning. Out of the shower, Josh got dressed next to Danny, but for some reason, there wasn’t much to say. As Josh pulled his shoes on, he asked Danny, "You got a run today?"

"Night run, after practice, with Diane," Danny said. "Going to go home and try to get some sleep. See you later."

Josh finished up dressing and walked out to the Chevette. What with practice, and work, he had only seen Amy a couple of times this week, although one of the dates was pretty good. He’d managed to arrange a cab ride for Amy up to Warsaw and back when he’d made a run up there with his dad. Amy had seemed to like riding in the engine, but she’d said it was awfully noisy. Afterwards, they’d gone down to Albany River, so he’d finally actually had a solo date with Amy, not that anything else had happened except for a rather chaste goodnight kiss, nothing like the passion of their night at the lake a couple weeks before. Still, it had been all right, without quite the unstated tension of the recent double dates.

Things had indeed changed.

Josh parked his car at the C&SL office. He was walking toward the door when Bud came out. "You ready to go, Josh?" he called.

"Am I late?" Josh asked, picking up his lunch bucket.

"Just in time," Bud said. "I was just getting ready to go."

The train was out on the passing track beyond the wye. Josh drove Bud and himself out to where the engines waited, with no one else around. He parked the car again, and the two climbed aboard the lead GP-9, one of a pair that Bud had leased for the summer from a company in Illinois.

It was not going to be a day that Josh worked hard. There’d be a little switching to do at Camden, but that might take fifteen minutes. With a maximum load for the two Geeps, there was no way Bud was going to have him running the motors on the way down, but he might get a little throttle time on the way back.

With a full load, it took Bud a long time to get the train up to speed. They were passing California cut, halfway to Albany River, when Bud finally throttled back a notch, to see if the speed would hold. It seemed like it would, and Bud visibly relaxed. Josh took the opportunity to thank Bud for allowing Amy to take the cab ride earlier in the week.

"No problem," Bud replied. "I know how it is when you’re young. Anything you can do to impress the ladies. Hope it was worth it."

"She seemed to enjoy it," Josh replied.

"Well, good," Bud said. "I know your dad gave her a good ride. You’ve been running with him a lot lately, haven’t you? It seems like a week since we’ve made a run together."

Josh counted days. "More than that, I guess," he said.

"It always gets crazy, this time of year," Bud said. "With only five engineers and three road engine sets, it seems like we’re either running ’em or working on ’em. Thank God Bill Lee can help us out over in Kremmling, or we’d really be in trouble."

Bill Lee, Diane Page’s father, owned part of the Lordston Northern Scenic railroad – the C&SL owned the other part – which ran from Lordston up to Kremmling. Ever since the bridge over the river in Camden had gone out, traffic on and off of the C&SL came over the Lordston Northern and through Kremmling. Sometimes, the C&SL ran clear to Lordston, but usually they swapped loads with Lee at Kremmling.

"They ever going to get that bridge fixed?" Josh asked, making conversation.

"Six years ago, they promised me they’d have it done in a week or ten days," Bud said. "I’m still waiting, and I expect I’ll still be waiting six years from now. Anyway, I’m glad you’ve been willing to work as much as you have. The brakeman situation is as bad as the engineer situation. I’ve even had to call on Frank Matson to brake for me a couple of times.

"Well, I’m willing to help where I can," Josh said. "Did you ever get a chance to talk to Coach Hekkinan?"

"I talked to him over breakfast, one day last week," Bud said. "He said he’d let you go if I really needed you some time, but he’d really rather you didn’t miss practice."

Typical coach, Josh thought. Nothing’s as important as football. "Well, let me know," he said. "I don’t mind."

"Hey, it’s not bad news," Bud said. "I got the impression he wants you at practice since he wants to play you."

"I sure haven’t been picking up on that," Josh said.

"He probably doesn’t want you to," Bud said. "Keeping you up in the air makes you want to try harder. As far as work goes, we can fiddle around, and you probably don’t miss much. If you want, I’ll try to give you runs on weekends, after school gets going. That’ll help the schedule some."

"Sure, any time," Josh said as Bud blew for a crossing. That was something! He might get to play! Maybe not start, but the starting lineups hadn’t been announced, yet. He’d started in the scrimmage with Warsaw the night before, but that didn’t count for much.

They rumbled on for a couple of miles with the GP-9s bellowing before Bud spoke again. "Hey, you remember the last time we were out," he said over the roar of the motors, "we were talking about whether you were going to go to college. You think about that any more?"

"I’ve tried to weigh some pros and cons," Josh said. "I know I ought to go, but the more I think about it, the more I’m not sure."

"Well, you got a while yet," Bud said. "But I got sort of an offer I want to make to you. You got a couple years before you have to make up your mind, but I’d like you to think about it."

Josh’s ears perked up, pushing thoughts of football aside. "What’s that?" he asked.

"Well, having Ed laid up all summer got me to thinking," Bud said. "Ed’s getting to an age where he needs to be taking it easier. He’s about the best diesel maintainer there ever was, and he’s managed to keep these old engines running. But, I know that one GP-38 can do the job of two of these GP-9s. I’ve been thinking about getting rid of a couple of the older Geeps and getting a couple of GP-38s."

"That’s awful heavy for these rails," Josh commented.

"We’d have to take some ballast out of ’em," Bud agreed. "With lighter engines, maybe get SD-38s. The six axles would make up for some of the lost traction, but it’s still something I’m just kicking around."

"So what does that have to do with me?" Josh asked.

"Well, these newer engines have computerized traction control, and a bunch of goofball high-tech stuff, and I’m just not too sure how bad Ed is going to want to go back to school and learn how to fix any of it, and then maybe not use very much what he’s had to learn. One way to deal with that situation is to send someone else to school instead. It’s not anything we have to worry about right away, but what I’m thinking is that after you get out of high school, you could work for us in the summer, and in the winter go to diesel maintainers’ school, and some of the special tech schools, then come back and work for us. Wouldn’t be all diesel maintenance; you’d get some train service, too, like me. Probably be a lot of routine maintenance, and Ed’ll probably be around for years to work part-time on the tricky stuff."

"Yeah," Josh said, his eyes lighting up with the possibilities. "I might like to do something like that. How much do those schools cost?"

"Well, what I was thinking about doing is sort of loaning you the money for those schools," Bud said. "Then, each year you work for us, I’d write off part of the loan. Spread it over six or eight years, maybe. If you quit and went somewhere else, you’d owe me the balance."

"That’s a heck of a deal," Josh said.

"I think it is," Bud said. "It solves a bunch of problems for me, right from the beginning. For you, well, I wish someone had offered me a deal like that when I was your age. Like I said, I don’t need an answer from you right now, or even this time next year. I know your dad would like you to go to college, like your brother, but if you’re not going to college, well, this might be something to think about."

"I sure will think about it," Josh said.

*   *   *

After Susan was born, Kirsten had been staying home days, with only an occasional stop by the office to exchange copy and computer disks, but more often, Mike brought them out to the house on his lunch hour.

Tiffany was old enough to really help with Susan, so after some discussion, Kirsten agreed to let her stay home for a few days and try it out, rather than going to the day-care center out at the club.

Henry still had to be taken to day care each day, though, and the job fell on Mike most of the time. The chore had to be done before he went to work, and the driving time involved had all but cut out Mike’s regular morning visits to the Spearfish Lake Café. Since Henry was a dawdler about getting up and ready in the morning, sometimes it took shouting and fast driving to be able to make it to work on time. Mike looked forward to school reopening, since that would mean his mornings would be a little less hectic, and he could resume his regular coffee calls.

Once in a while, though, Henry got his act together in the morning, and Mike was able to salvage a few minutes for a quick cup of coffee at the café. It felt good to be able to walk into the café, sit down, and catch up on the talk around the table.

By August, the upcoming football season had become a regular part of the discussion, but even that was often buried in the talks of the sewer separation project. Since Mike followed what was happening with the project about as closely as anyone in town, when he could make it in for coffee he was usually quizzed about what went on. It soon ceased to be his favorite topic, but Ryan Clark was at the coffee table most mornings, and he took some of the heat off of Mike.

This morning, though, when Mike took a seat at the table across from Mark, fortunately the topic was football. He hadn’t even gotten his coffee ordered yet when Clark was asking, "What do you think of this McGuinnis kid at quarterback? He’s only a sophomore, for Christ’s sake."

While Mike let Varner handle the other sports, he’d realized long before that football was a big enough deal in Spearfish Lake, and he felt more comfortable handling it himself. "Looks pretty good," Mike said. "He’s got an arm on him, he’s quick and accurate. If he throws an incomplete, it’s usually because the receiver screwed up."

"Yeah, but why the hell did Hekkinan pass up that Johansen kid? He’s a senior, after all."

"In this town, a Johansen is supposed to be a quarterback," Mike said, "whether he’s got an arm, or not, and that kid doesn’t. He doesn’t make for a bad running back, but he hasn’t got the brains to adapt when things fall apart."

"The Johansens did produce a few dumb ones," George Lindquist agreed. "But everybody in this town remembers this kid’s granddaddy. Best quarterback we ever had, back when Gil Evachevski and him were playing. It’s hard to believe that’s going on forty years ago."

"People do remember," Clark agreed. "How’s the team looking?"

"Well, if they can beat Coldwater, then we’ll know," Mike said. "That’s always a pretty good barometer for the season."

"It would be nice," Lindquist agreed. "It’s been a long time since we beat Coldwater. Anyway, Mike," he went on, changing the subject, "I’m glad you came in today. I was going to call you later, anyway. The Donna Clark Foundation Board met last night, and they decided to go ahead and fund that book of yours on the Warsaw fire."

"Hey, that’s great," Mike said. "Full funding?"

"Every cent," Lindquist said. "What’s the chances we can have it out by the first of November or so, so we can catch the Christmas shopping season."

"Pretty good," Mike said. "After Mark converted it to IBM for me back last May, I sat down whenever I got a slow afternoon at the office and went back through it. I didn’t have a spellchecker with the Apple, so the 286 at the office found a few misspellings, and I cleaned up a few rough spots. I was holding off on getting it camera ready until I knew it was going to go. I should have a slow day today, so I could get started on it, if you want us to take care of printing it."

"That’s what we’d figured on. You’re going to print it right here?" Lindquist asked.

"No," Mike said. "We’ll get it camera ready, and ship it off to a specialty house. We can’t handle the bindery work here anyway, and it’s cheaper to have the specialty shop do the whole job. If it’s a work project, rather than a screw-around project, it gets a higher priority. We ought to be able to ship it off in a couple of weeks, and we ought to have it back six weeks after that. Allowing a week or two for shipping and slipups and whatnot, you ought to have it by the first of November."

"Couldn’t ask for better," George replied. "Use lots of photos, if you can."

"Sure will," Mike agreed. "Fortunately, I earmarked a whole file of photos for the book long ago, so it won’t be a problem. I’m going to be glad to see this baby in print."

"Makes you feel good, huh?" Mark commented.

"Yeah," Mike said. "When I was a kid, I had plans to write a whole shelf full of books. I think every newspaper writer does. But, it never happened for me. This’ll be the first. It’s not going to be a best seller, or anything, but it’ll be nice, anyway."

"It’ll help out the historical society a lot," Lindquist said. "We really appreciate your giving it to us, Mike."

"It wasn’t doing anybody any good where it was," Mike said. Quietly, he was pretty happy about the book finally seeing print. It had been a labor of love that had taken a year’s worth of solid work, and the rejection slips had been a kick in the gut. At least this way, he’d have something to show for all the work.

"How you guys coming with those dogs?" Clark asked.

"Pretty good," Mark said. "The four we’ve got are trained about as well as they’re going to be before we get snow. The only problem is that none of the dogs we’ve got now likes to run in a double lead very well. The only real command leader we’ve got is Cumulus, and he runs best in single lead. When we try to put him in with a second leader, things get screwed up real quick."

"Yeah," Mike added. "I tried running the team up the trail last night, not just around the field, and it seemed like every tree we came to, Midnight tried to go on one side of it, and Cumulus on the other. That got old, real quick. I finally moved Midnight back to swing, and moved Red back to wheel, and it worked all right. At least, I made it back."

"You know, Mike," Mark said, "we really ought to get another dog. That way, at least we could run Cumulus in single lead without an unbalanced team."

"Maybe two," Mike said. "Get them pretty well trained, and the way Tiffany’s puppy is growing, he ought to be able to run a bit when we get snow."

"He’s growing fast," Mark said, "but I don’t expect him to be ready that soon. He’s a little wild. Still got a lot of puppy in him."

"He’s supposed to," Mike said. "He’s still only four or five months old. He’s going to grow up to be a real sled dog, though. Tiffany’s already been working with him." Mark knew that; Mike said it for the crowd.

"You ought to see those two," Mark said. "The puppy’s dragging around a little tire, just enough to let him know he’s pulling something, and he’s learning pretty fast. I’m not sure Tiffany has got him to learn ‘sit’ yet, but he’s got ‘gee’ and ‘haw’ and ‘hike’ and ‘whoa’. Another year, he settles down a little, and he’ll make a command leader, but he’s not ready to run with the other dogs yet."

"She’s out there every day, working with him," Mike reported. "She’s going to make a musher, yet."

"Have you guys turned her loose with a team yet?"

"Not yet," Mike said. "Three dogs is still a little bit too much to start out with, for her, and one dog isn’t enough. If one of the other dogs would run double lead with Cumulus, I might be willing to give it a try."

"We get another dog or two," Mark said, "one of them might be able to run with Cumulus."

"It’ll take a while to get new dogs trained," Mike replied. "Maybe we get three dogs good and tired some time, and we could turn her loose with three."

"Don’t you just love it?" Clark said to Lindquist. "These guys watch one TV show, and then they come in here, and all they do is talk about dogs, after they’ve run dogs all the evening before."

"I think we created a monster," Lindquist agreed.

"You guys ever give any thought about a race out to Warsaw and back, like we talked about last spring?" Clark asked. "We need something to spruce up the winter festival."

"Don’t have enough dogs to make a race of it," Mark said. "But, if we get another couple or three between now and then, then we could probably make a demonstration trip. That’d be fun." He thought for a moment, then turned to Mike. "You want to go looking for dogs on Saturday?"

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