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 36

December, 1987

After the last council meeting in November, Mike had not gone to the Spearfish Lake Café for a week or so, reasoning that Ryan Clark might well be there. Not that Mike was avoiding him, but he didn’t want to get into a washup of the events of that night.

That wasn’t the case with the first December meeting, which had been held the evening before. Mike thought it was nice to have a free Wednesday morning, one when he wouldn’t have to be in to work till nine or so; he could have a leisurely breakfast, rather than just a hurried cup of coffee.

Predictably, the sewer was a topic of discussion, but it wasn’t the hot topic it had been two weeks before, but Mike tried to stay out of the discussion, though a couple of other times tried to lever the discussion into different channels.

George Lindquist sitting across the table gave him one chance. "I’ve got to admit, George," he said, "you solved one major problem for me this year."

"What’s that?"

"Every year, I’ve got about two dozen friends and relatives I have to send Christmas presents to, and it’s always a hassle to come up with something for some of them. I mean, what the hell do I send to Jennifer Evachevski, for instance? This year was easy. I just sent them all a book."

"That’s one way to get rid of them."

"How are they selling, anyway?"

"Oh, they’re selling all right," George said. "I mean, I didn’t expect to have spectacular sales, but they’ve been all right. We’ll make out all right, and have them around for a while."

"Well, just so long as you’re not buried in them for the next ten years," Mike said. "I was talking with Fred Linder over in Warsaw a week ago Sunday about it, and he seemed pretty pleased with it. He said it’s solving his Christmas present problem, too."

"I can’t believe Christmas is almost here," George replied. "Kids’ll be out of school the day after tomorrow, and it seems like they just started school."

"God damn it," Ryan Clark said, in response to a question from down the table. "We didn’t fire that jerk. He quit. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t have fired him if it came down to a vote."

"It looks like you treated him kind of rough," someone said.

"He deserved it," Clark said. "He was into mushroom management. Keep ’em in the dark and feed ’em shit. He had the idea that he was smarter than the council, so he only needed to tell us what he thought we needed to know. There’s no way the board can make a competent decision under those circumstances."

Mike gave in. There was no way he could stay out of this discussion. "It wouldn’t have been so bad if he had been smarter than the council," he said. "But some of the stuff he did was pretty damn dumb."

This time, it was Mark who decided to try to change the topic a little. "Have you heard anything on that idea I had? The one about the enlarged plant?"

"Not much," Clark said. "Musgrave said last night that the engineers liked the idea, but they hadn’t come up with a figure yet. Maybe a month or so. At least we’ve got some time to look at the problem, now, and not have to head off half-cocked."

"Why’s that?" George said.

"We did hear from the EPA," Clark said. "They realize that the problems we’ve had with this snake thing have slowed us up, so they’re giving us another year before they start fining us. That’s good, since we never could have had either the retention pond, the expanded plant, or the sewer separation in place by next July first, not starting to work on it now, anyway."

"That does take a little of the heat off," Mike commented.

"It takes a hell of a lot of the heat off," Clark said. "We can break ground in the spring, whatever we do, and do it right, not rush off half-assed and do the wrong thing, or whatever Kutzley told us we had to do."

Mike decided to do a little prying. Clark was going so well, he might let out something of what had happened behind closed doors the night before. "I know you guys had an executive session last night," he said. "I took off and worked up the story. Did you guys decide to go ahead and sue the Fish and Wildlife Service to get the Critical Interest Area constraint lifted?"

"That was the point of the session," Clark replied. "I don’t want you to print this, but the Fish and Wildlife Service might just be willing to do it, or at least so Charlie says. He took a run over to Minneapolis last week to sound them out, and it seems that they think they may have put the thing in place a little quickly, especially since after Pam Appleton searched all summer, the only snake they’ve got is the one your wife killed. They’re not sure it’s even a Gibson’s water snake. Odds are that it isn’t; it turns out that no one has definitely seen a Gibson’s water snake since 1931."

"Seems pretty clear-cut to me," George said.

"Well, the only fly in the ointment is that if they announce that they’re considering lifting the Critical Interest Area, they have to file notices, have public hearings, and all that stuff," Clark said. "And as soon as they file a public notice, they expect that they’ll get hit with a lawsuit from our young friend from the Defenders of Gaea to halt the procedure. They don’t want to go to court any more than we do."

"She really turned into a pain in the ass," Lindquist said. "Mike, did you have to run that ad of hers about deer hunters in the paper? That pissed a lot of people off."

"She paid for it, so we ran it," Mike said. "So what if she cuts her own throat? It’s like Kutzley. I can’t believe a person who’s so smart can be so damn dumb about public opinion."

"Goddamn fanatic," Clark said. "So damn sure she’s right that anybody who’s got a different opinion is automatically dead wrong, no matter how valid that opinion may be."

"There’s a lot of idiots like that running around," George said. "Environmentalists, animal rights activists, anti-abortionists, people who don’t have the slightest idea of what they’re talking about, but they will sure as hell tell you where to go if you don’t agree with them."

"Well, I for one don’t like to have outsiders come into town and cram stuff down our throats, whether we like it or not," Clark said. "And you can just add the Defenders of Gaea to a list that already includes the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency."

He’s really cranked up this morning, Mike thought. He keeps on going much longer, and there’ll be a story come out of this yet. "So, what do we do?" he asked as innocuously as he could.

"Mike, I can tell you this much," Clark responded. "If the Defenders sue the Fish and Wildlife Service, we’re going to sue, too. I figure it this way. We’ve got a choice between building a six million-dollar waste water treatment plant, or a ten million-dollar something else. I figure anything less than four million dollars spent on legal bills above building the separation system, which we need anyway, is a net savings."

"Right now," George said, "I don’t think you’d find a lot of people in this town who’d disagree with you."

*   *   *

With only a couple of days to go before Christmas, Spearfish Lake was really getting into the holiday spirit. It was snowing merrily, if not heavily, and all hopes for a white Christmas seemed to have been answered. The town was dressed for the season, and spirits were high with anticipation. The children had been out of school for a week on their Christmas vacation, and perhaps their anticipation was running the highest of all, with hopes of a big haul from Santa Claus.

Certainly Tiffany Langenderfer-McMahon had high hopes, but Kirsten informed Jackie one day that the little girl wasn’t going to get what she wanted.

"What’s that?" Jackie had asked.

"She wants another couple dogs and a dogsled of her own," Kirsten said. "No dolls, no toys, no video games. Just a dog team."

"Well, when I was a kid, I wanted a horse," Jackie said. "Living in town, I couldn’t have one, of course, but it didn’t keep me from wanting one."

"Tiffany is going to have to get along with her father’s dog team for a few years," Kirsten said. "I mean, I thought the men were just going through a mid-life crisis, but they created a monster in the process."

"She sure seems to like the dogs," Jackie agreed. "Well, I hope the men like what they get in their Christmas stockings."

"Oh, they’ll be thrilled," Kirsten said. She and Jackie had spent a day making dog booties to put in their husband’s stockings. "They won’t be able to wait to try them out."

"Are you getting Mike anything special for Christmas?" Jackie asked.

"I thought about getting him a train set," Kirsten said. "As much as he talked about putting a model railroad in the basement, I thought maybe that would keep him home once in a while. But then, I realized that I’d see about as much of him that way as I do now. He’d just be down in the basement all the time instead."

"Running the dogs may be better for him, anyway," Jackie commented. "At least he gets some exercise that way."

"That’s what I keep telling myself," Kirsten said.

At the same time Jackie and Kirsten were discussing dog booties, dog teams were also a topic of discussion at the pizza place next to the bowling alley. "I tell you, it’s really a trip," Josh Archer was telling Danny Evachevski. "Mark and Jackie flew down to see their friends near Arvada Center last weekend, so he let me harness up his team and go for a run in the woods with Mike McMahon. It was really neat."

"Sounds like you’ve been having fun with it," Danny said, not really interested.

"You ride on the back of the sled, and it’s like riding on a quiet snowmobile with a turbo boost," Josh said. "A day like last Saturday was just so beautiful to be out, it was wonderful. It makes me wish I had my own dog team. The only time I can get out is when either Mark or Mike has something else he has to do and the other one wants to take a run."

"Whatever turns you on," Danny commented.

Josh let the comment slide off. "You know," he said, "when I was out last Saturday, I couldn’t help but think how much fun it would have been to have been able to take Amy for a ride. I think she’d like it."

"It’d be nice to see Amy and Marsha," Danny commented. "But they’re gone for the holidays, down to some nudist resort in Florida."

Unbidden, the vision came over Josh of a naked Amy playing volleyball in the sun, her long hair flying in the breeze. "Sure would be nice to see her," he said. "We haven’t seen the girls since they came up for the haunted house."

"Yeah, and then we didn’t get to see much of them," Danny said. "Oh, well, there’s always next summer."

"Yeah, that’s the one reason to look forward to summer," Josh agreed.

"I’m a little worried about it," Danny said. "I mean, summer fun is summer fun, but now it looks like I’m going to go to Athens next fall. Marsha will be there, and who knows where that’ll end up?"

"I thought you liked her."

"Oh, I like her a lot," Danny nodded, "but running around in the summer is one thing. With the two of us at Athens, and our parents not around, things could get out of hand, and I’m not sure I want them to. It could turn into a Brandy and Phil thing, real easy."

"You could do worse," Josh commented.

"I could," Danny said. He didn’t want to push the thought any further. "You been getting any calls from Bud?"

"I’ve had a couple, just for runs up to Warsaw," Josh said. "The railroad is really through with the busy season now, and there won’t be much going on till spring. They’re not doing anything, right now, what with the plant in Warsaw shut down for the holidays."

"That makes a nice holiday," Danny commented. "Kind of like having a couple weeks off from school."

Josh still had his mind on Amy. "Do you think you could find out where the girls are?" he asked. "We could call them up, and wish them a Merry Christmas, anyway."

"I could ask Mom," Danny replied. "I think their grandfather has a cottage down there, where they’re staying. She might know."

"Let’s finish this pizza and go ask," Josh suggested.

"Boy, you’re just full of Christmas spirit, aren’t you?"

"Everybody is," Josh smiled.

Josh was wrong. Not everybody in Spearfish Lake was filled with the Christmas spirit, and one notable exception was Heather Sanford.

The last month had been sheer hell for Heather. She’d made three trips to the Fish and Wildlife Service in Minneapolis, not just to lobby the Service to stand firm on the Critical Interest Area, the main reason to go, but also to get out of Spearfish Lake.

Heather had never been much of one make friends easily, but over the months she had spent in Spearfish Lake in the fall, she’d made only few acquaintances who made the days go easier – most notably, John Pacobel. But, with the ad in the Record-Herald and then the events of the second November council meeting, and then filing the lawsuit asking that the Fish and Wildlife Service be barred from raising the Critical Interest Area, she’d become just about the next thing to persona non grata in Spearfish Lake. Hardly anyone would speak to her; she had trouble getting service in stores and restaurants, and she’d taken to doing her shopping in Albany River. She hadn’t seen Pacobel in weeks, and that made life even more lonely.

That it was Christmas made Heather seem even more bitter and depressed. She’d spent Christmases alone before, but they’d been in Los Angeles, where the weather kind of took the edge off of the Christmas spirit, so she hadn’t missed it so much. The snow, and the pine trees, and the general winter atmosphere reminded her of the Christmases of her youth, when her parents were still alive, and it hurt to even look out the window. It was hard to see the decorated houses, the shoppers carrying presents, the happy people. The only Christmas she had to enjoy was cards she’d received from Harper and McMullen, and she knew they’d been sent out by a mailing service, so couldn’t mean much. There’d be no presents under a Christmas tree for her, no family dinner, no warmth and love. She knew that for the weekend she wouldn’t even be able to turn on the TV or the radio without being deluged with Christmas carols and TV specials that would hurt too much.

The best she could do was ignore it, not easy under the circumstances. She wasn’t one to crawl into a bottle often, but for once it seemed like a good idea: buy a couple of bottles, get a few books from the library, and sit in her apartment and try to ignore the bleak cold of the lake that seemed about as empty as she did inside.

Once the decision was made, moving on with it seemed easy; there would at least be something to do. Driving down to the liquor store in Albany River seemed a little out of the way, but it would get her out of town for a while. She wished she didn’t have to drive down there with it snowing. Living in California as long as she had, she wasn’t used to driving on snow, and had never even done it much when she’d lived in Massachusetts.

Still, she hadn’t had any problems so far this winter – the Omni had handled well in the snow – and the alternative, that of staying dry for the weekend, made it seem like it was worth the risk.

*   *   *

Out in Los Angeles, it had been several years since Jennifer Evachevski had worried about driving on snow, although she looked forward to the challenge in another year. With rehearsals for the live show Saturday, and then the show on Sunday, she and Blake would have to be in Orlando soon and were leaving later in the afternoon, so they held their own little Christmas celebration at the same time Heather Sanford was getting into her car. Their Christmas was on the quiet side, but not nearly as bleak as what Heather was facing.

She and Blake had taken the time to find a Christmas tree – a real one, not artificial, and not easy to find in southern California. Blake had offered to decorate it for her, but that was one thing she wanted to do with her own hands. She and Blake had shared in making a Christmas dinner, too, just for the two of them. Blake had managed to find a small turkey, and he did the hard part, but Jenny did a lot in the kitchen, too.

After their dinner, they’d sat down on the floor next to the Christmas tree to open their presents, the ones that had come from family and friends. She was thrilled with the gift that Blake had given her: a Patagonia down-filled jacket. "You shouldn’t have," she told him.

"I wanted to," he said. "You won’t get a lot of use out of it this winter, but you will next year. It’ll be a reminder of something to look forward to."

"Thank you, Blake," she said. "Next year, we’ll both have a white Christmas. I promise." With that, she got up and got a long, thin package out from behind the tree. "This is for you," she said.

"You didn’t have to do that," he said.

"I wanted to," she said. "It’s for you. You won’t get a lot of use out of it this winter, either, but you will next winter."

He opened the package; inside were a set of cross-country skis and poles. He smiled. "This is something I never thought I’d need as a California boy," he said.

"It’ll give you something to do to get some exercise," she said. "We can go skiing together."

There were more presents, mostly for Jenny, but a few for Blake, too, like a bottle of Chivas Regal from Fred Knox. He dug around under the tree, and finally came to two presents, wrapped together. They were from Mike McMahon and Kirsten Langenderfer, and one of the packages was for each of them. "Let’s open them together," he suggested.

Both of the packages turned out to be the same thing, copies of Mike’s book on the Warsaw fire. "I’m going to enjoy reading this," Jenny said. "It’ll make me think of home. I think I’ll take this to Orlando with me."

"I’m always cruising for something else to read while you’re on the set," he commented, paging through the book. "Looks pretty good."

"Mike’s a good writer," she said. "I’m sure you’ll enjoy it."

*   *   *

It was mid-afternoon in Spearfish Lake when Jennifer and Blake were opening their Christmas presents that morning in California. Mike was sitting in the office, almost alone in the building. Nothing was going on, and most of the staff was out doing their last minute pre-Christmas things, whatever they were.

The weeks just past had been hectic ones, and they always were for pulling the Christmas issue together, but now that the issue was out, there wasn’t much to do. The next week’s paper, right after Christmas, was always one of the smallest of the year, and they’d already gotten a good start on it, seeing as how it’d be another one-day paper, so even that wasn’t going to be too bad.

Right now, it was rather boring. Mike had been reduced to cleaning off his desk for the sake of something to do, and he’d accumulated a full wastebasket when the phone rang.

It proved to be Mark. "Had a relay go out south of town a little ways," he said. "Shouldn’t be any big problem to fix, but it’s a hell of a long way off the road, so I’m going to take the dogs. You want to come along?"

"Can’t," Mike said. "There’s no one else to stay here. If you want, you can take my dogs with you. I don’t know when I’m going to get time to get out next and give them some exercise."

"I’ll see if I can find Josh," Mark said. "If I can’t, maybe I’ll just hook up all ten dogs. Getting back to that relay is going to be a little hard, and it’ll be easier to break trail with more dogs."

"I doubt that you’re going to find Josh," Mike said. "He and Danny Evachevski were in here a couple of hours ago, and they said something about going down to Albany River."

"All right," Mark said. "I’ll stop by the house and pick up your dogs."

"Have a good time," Mike said sadly. It would be a good afternoon to run the dogs, he thought as he hung up the phone. Well, maybe he could get out for a while tomorrow afternoon. If not then, maybe Monday. It would be fun to try running the ten dogs in front of a sled; they hadn’t tried it yet.

Mark shared much the same thought, and he was calling from home. By now, harnessing up his team and getting them ready to go didn’t take long; he had it down to a science. He loaded a spare relay, a tool box, and a short extension ladder on the sled. The ladder stuck out a ways in front of the sled, and he had to add an extra section to the gangline so it wouldn’t interfere with the wheel dogs.

Harnessing the extra dogs to the gangline turned out to be even more fun. Tiffany came out and helped him, or it could have been a real mess. He harnessed Ringo into double lead with Cumulus, and fairly soon he was heading out of Mike’s yard behind ten dogs.

Running with ten dogs proved to be as much an adventure as he’d expected. His own team hadn’t gotten over the mad rushes as yet, and the Beatle Hounds were full of them, and the first mile or so was a little wild before the team settled down. The only problem was that there was no good backwoods trail down through town to where the relay was out, and Mark had to rely on running down snow-covered tree lawns and snowmobile tracks, and it took some threading around. He could never have made the complicated route without two good command leaders on point. He felt that Ringo was still a little tentative and unsure, but with Cumulus next to him, the pair did as well as anyone could ask for.

They got through the worst of town, and Mark drove the team across the school grounds and across the football field, then found a snowmobile trail that more or less followed the phone line. The snowmobiles had done a good job of breaking trail, so getting to the relay box wasn’t as much of a problem as he’d thought it would be. He tied the sled to the phone pole, then put out a snow hook in front of Cumulus and Ringo to help them keep the team stretched out, to avoid fights and tangled lines. If it turned out to be a fairly big job, he could picket the dogs, but he might get lucky.

Replacing the relay turned out to be a fairly simple job, for which he was thankful, since it was beginning to snow harder, and the wind was picking up a bit. "Well, dogs," he said to the combined teams as he put his tools away, "now Gramma can have her Christmas phone call with the kiddies."

The sky was gray and overcast, and it was going to be getting dark early, so he thought he ought to be heading for home as he tied the ladder back onto the sled. What’s more, he didn’t feel like putting up with having to thread down side streets again. While the lead dogs had done a good job, it wouldn’t take much for them to get messed up. There was a better way, even though it was longer. If he continued south a little bit, he’d come to the gravel road that a lot of people used as a short cut to get out of town and onto the state road to the south. Probably it wouldn’t have been plowed very well, and it was only a mile or so to the lakeshore. He could come up the lakeshore, and then cut cross lots to Busted Axle Road. It would probably be all right, if he didn’t run into any traffic.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much traffic going down the gravel road, just one car, slipping and sliding through the drifts. It seemed that most people had avoided the short cut in the snow. With the wider road, he gave the dogs their head, and they rapidly ran down the road.

Just short of the place where he planned to leave the road and run on the ice of the lake, he came across a car with its nose in a deep snowdrift. The car’s blinker lights were on, and there was someone standing outside, waving their arms. "Whoa!" he yelled to the team.

Obediently, the dogs slowed and then stopped. Mark hopped off the sled, and put the snow hook into a nearby snow bank. "Got troubles?" he asked.

"Some damn idiot ran me off the road," the woman said. She was wearing a parka, with the hood pulled up. Her voice sounded familiar, but Mark couldn’t place it. "I can’t get it out."

"Let me try to give you a push," Mark said. The woman got into the car, and Mark stepped into the snow bank, to try to get a good place to push. "OK, put it in reverse," he said.

Strain as he could, he couldn’t move the car. They tried for a couple of minutes, but there wasn’t much he could do. Finally, he stood up and waved his arms. "No good," he said. "We need more power. I’ll be back in a minute."

There was more power available – ten dogs, to be precise. It was a bit of trouble to get the dogs to back up, that not being something they had trained for, but soon he had the sled close to the car. He took the picket line, tied one end of it to the gangline, and the other end to a trailer hitch on the car. Walking back to the snowdrift in front, he said to the woman, "OK, let’s try it again." He got back into position, and said, "All right, easy now," then yelled, "Gravediggers! Beatle Hounds! Hike! Hike! Hike!"

There were about four hundred and fifty pounds of well-muscled, well-trained dogs out there, their traction spread out among forty paws, and what Mark and the car had been unable to do at all, they made look easy. It took only a moment for the car to be out into the middle of the road, with Mark yelling "whoa!" to bring them to a stop.

The woman got out of the car and threw back her parka, and only then did Mark realize that it was Heather Sanford. "Thanks," she said. "What do I owe you for that?"

"Don’t worry about it," Mark said. "I’d have done that for anyone."

"I’m glad you came along," Heather said. "I’m just sorry you had to exploit those poor, helpless animals to help me out."

"What do you mean?" Mark said, not believing what he heard.

"It’s cruel to exploit animals like that, just for your own use. Don’t you know they have rights?" she said.

"Look, lady," Mark said, getting hot under the collar. She had some nerve getting on his ass, after the dogs had just pulled her from the snowdrift, "none of those dogs would be alive if it weren’t for me. Two of them were strays when I took them in, and they were running around the woods half-starved. The rest would have been dead if my buddy and I hadn’t rescued them from the dog pound. Four of them were less than an hour from being gassed when we rescued them. They like to run, and they’re trained to run. If we didn’t run them, we couldn’t afford to have them around. They wouldn’t do anything but eat and sleep and shit if we didn’t give them the exercise."

"They have their rights," Heather bristled. "Your using them to pull a dogsled is cruel and heartless."

"Look, lady," Mark said, thoroughly pissed off now. "I don’t have to stand here and put up with your shit. I’m sorry I stopped, but that can be rectified." He raised his voice. "Gravediggers! Beatle Hounds! UP! HIKE! HIKE! HIKE!"

The dogs had been standing around, still in good order, when Mark’s command came. Instantly, they dug in with their paws and started to strain. Heather dived for the open car door, to try to get to the brake, but she missed. A briefcase fell out of the open door of the car and sprung open, with papers flying all over the place in the wind, just before the open door knocked her down. She picked herself up, and went running after the car, well behind Mark. "You God damn son of a bitch," she yelled.

"GEE! GEE!" Mark yelled by way of reply, and the two leaders lead the dogs off into the snowdrift to the right of the road. The car slewed to the side, as Mark ran after it, and by the time it hit the drift, it was moving pretty good. With its speed, and the power of the dogs, they managed to get it well off the road before the snow dragged it to a stop.

Mark yelled "whoa," ran to the back of the car, unhooked the picket line, and got on the runners of the sled. Without looking back, he yelled, "OK, guys, hike!"

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