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 37

Mark was only a little way out onto the lake when he began to feel a little remorse. That was a cruel thing to do, he realized, although he felt good about it. He was still shaking from being mad. That woman just didnít have the good sense to keep quiet, just once, when someone did her a favor. But no, sheíd mouthed off, and for once, sheíd gotten hers. With all the trouble sheíd caused Spearfish Lake, it felt good to be the one to pay her back a little.

Still, he knew heíd stepped out of line. In the winter, that kind of unkindness could be deadly. It probably wouldnít be right now; it wasnít that cold, and someone would probably be along fairly soon.

He thought about it as he passed along the lakeshore in front of town. Finally, his guilt overcame him a little, and he hawed the dogs onto the shore, right at Main Street.

With all the snow, the streets were getting covered, and it was no real problem to run right up the street. Fortunately, there were only two stop lights to deal with, and both of them were green, so he didnít have to go to the hassle of stopping and starting the dogs. "Just gee, just gee," he told the leaders. He wasnít sure that Ringo knew the command for an easy right turn, but Cumulus nudged him to the side, and they ran down the street right next to the curb.

Mark called "whoa!" right in front of the Record-Herald office. He ran the picket line out to a nearby parking meter for a tieline, and took the snow hook line, and tied Cumulus and Ringo off a couple of parking meters ahead. "Wonder if theyíre going to give me a ticket?" he wondered, and bemused by the possibility, he reached in his pocket, and found some pennies there. He walked back down the line of parking meters, and dropped a penny in each one, laughing every time he did so. When he got back to the sled, he noticed a couple of papers stuck in the basket. He bent over to throw them out, and then decided he didnít want to litter the streets, so he kept them in his hand as he walked into the Record-Herald office.

Mike was sitting in his office, really bored, now, when Mark walked in. "What brings you down here?" he said.

"Kind of a long story," Mark said, dropping the papers onto the pile that overflowed the top of the wastebasket. "I stopped to help out a car stuck in a snowdrift. It turned out to be Heather Sanford, and she gave me a lot of lip about cruel exploitation of helpless animals, so I had the teams drag her car into another snowdrift."

"Serves her right," Mike said. "Iím glad you did that."

"Yeah," Mark said. "But she got knocked down when the dogs took off with her car, and she could be hurt. How about hopping in your car and going out to see if sheís all right? It was maybe a couple hundred yards up 226 from Point Drive."

"I better not," Mike said. "Iím here by myself, and I donít know that I wouldnít just let her lay there." He looked at the clock. "But," he said, reaching for the phone, "LeRoy ought to be over at the doughnut shop for his evening coffee break. Iíll give him a shout and have him run over and look. That way, if he gets stuck, itís the cityís bill."

"Keep me out of it, can you?"

"It wonít do much good," Mike said. "She tells LeRoy Ďdog team,í and heís going to know it was you or me. But, he isnít any happier with her than anyone else in this town, so I suppose it wonít matter much."

"Well, all right."

It took Mike only a minute to tell LeRoy heíd heard that there was a stuck car and a possibly injured citizen out on 226 off of Point Drive. "Heíll check it out," Mike said as he hung up the phone.

"Well, that makes me feel better," Mark said.

"How was Busted Axle Road?" Mike asked.

"It wasnít bad when I came down it," Mark said, "but 226 was getting a little bad. Iíd better run the dogs home, then take a pass down it with the tractor before you try to get to your driveway."

"You brought the dogs with you?" Mike asked.

"Yeah, I got íem tied to the parking meters outside."

"This I got to see," Mike said, getting up and grabbing a camera.

Outside, there were several people standing around, looking at the strange sight of the dog team. In the gutter, the dogs were standing around peacefully. At that, not all of them were merely standing; some were sitting, others rolling around in the snow, and one was taking a leak on a parking meter. "Doesnít think much of parking meters," Mark sympathized.

"I agree with him," Mike said. "But, heís a dog, and he can get away with it. I canít."

"Mommy," a small child said. "Is that Santaís sleigh?"

"No," the woman said. "Doesnít Santa use deer, and not dogs?"

The light was fading fast; Mike took a few pictures, both with and without flash. These photos might not make it into the paper, but theyíd look good on the wall. "Why donít you hang around here, until I give you a call?" Mark said. "Thatíll give me time to get the road plowed out."

"Gee, I donít want to have to hang around here much longer," Mike replied as he untied the tieline that kept Ringo and Cumulus fastened to the front parking meter. "But, I suppose Iíd better. Iíll call Kirsten and tell her Iím going to be a little late."

"Give me a call later," Mark said. "Maybe we can take a run tomorrow, with all this snow."

"Iíd like to," Mike said, "but unless weíre snowed in, Iím probably not going to be able to. Thereís still too much to do to get ready for Sunday."

"Well, sometime," Mark said, unhooking the line to the rear parking meter. He looked up and down the street, and saw that no traffic was coming, then turning to the team, called, "Gravediggers! Beatle Hounds! Up! Hike! Cumulus, Ringo, come haw, come haw!"

Mike stood back and watched as the ten-dog team perfectly executed a U-turn across Main Street. It was pretty to watch, and it made him feel proud to think of how well theyíd trained the dogs.

"Are those the dogs that all the gossip has been about?" the woman with the small child asked.

"Thatís them," Mike admitted.

"My husband wants to talk to you some time," she said. "He says he thinks that looks like fun."

"It is fun," Mike said. "Tell him to come on out some time. The more, the merrier."

Mike walked back inside. Heíd gone outside without a coat, and now he was shivering a little. He glanced at the clock. It was getting close to quitting time, and now heíd sentenced himself to another hour of sitting around. Well, it was for the best; he wouldnít get stuck trying to get back up Busted Axle Road in the snow. He put his feet up on his desk and thought about going back to cleaning his desk, but even that didnít thrill him. He thought about booting up his computer, and playing a computer game, or maybe pulling up his notes on his conversation with Fred Linder, when Linder had passed along some of the stories his grandfather had told about working with dogs.

That last seemed like a good idea. He put his feet down, and leaned forward to throw the master switch for the computer. As he did, the "Defenders of Gaea" letterhead in the wastebasket caught his eye.

"Whereíd that come from?" he said to himself, then realized it was a paper that Mark had trashed. Curious, he picked it up. It was a little damp from the melting snow, but it was still legible.

*   *   *

As the dog team disappeared into the driving snow, Heather scurried around, trying to retrieve some of the papers that had been spilled from her briefcase, but the wind was taking them, and she was only able to salvage part of them. There were papers there that she didnít want to lose, mostly concerning the lawsuit, but the wind and pure chance controlled what she could save. In only a few minutes, it was clear that she had saved all she was going to.

She went over to where her car was stuck deep in the snow bank. Being front wheel drive, and stuck backward in the drift, she thought there was a chance that it might be driven out, but it was futile; the front wheels just spun in the snow.

That was the final straw. There was nothing left to do but sit behind the wheel and cry.

She put her arms on the steering wheel, buried her face in them, and sobbed helplessly. Everything had started out so well in Spearfish Lake, and now everything had turned sour.

She wasnít sure how long she sat there, tears streaming down her face, oblivious to everything, for the next thing she knew, she felt a hand on her shoulder, and a voice ask, "Heather, are you all right?"

She lifted her head, and with her reddened eyes saw John Pacobel standing in the snow next to her car, a look of concern on his face.

"Wha . . . what are you doing here?" she asked. "Donít you hate me like everybody else?"

"I saw your car stuck here, and I was worried about you," he said. "Are you all right?"

"I think I scraped my knee and bruised myself when I fell down," she replied, a little touched that someone still showed some concern.

John looked down at her legs, and could see that her pants were torn. "Iím not going to be able to get your car out," he said. "Let me take you home, and Iíll call a tow truck."

"Thanks, John," she said, gathering her briefcase, and the sack that sheíd gone to Albany River to buy.

It was warm and cozy inside Johnís car, and she felt relieved to be there. He got in, and started up the road back to town. "What happened?" he asked, peeling back the hood of his parka. "Looks like you spun out."

"I got towed into the damn snowdrift by a dog team," she said.

"Iíve got to admit," John said, "as many years as Iíve lived in Spearfish Lake, thatís a new one on me."

In a couple of minutes, John was able to pry most of the story from Heather. "Thatís strange," he said. "That would have had to have been either Mark Gravengood or Mike McMahon, and those have got to be the two most even-tempered guys in town."

"I know Mike," she said. "It wasnít him. It must have been Gravengood. Why would he have done something like that to me?"

John shook his head. "Heather, Iíd be lying to you if I said that you havenít made some enemies in this town. I told you back before deer season that there are some things that we have to tolerate, no matter how much we donít like them. Things arenít black and white, just shades of gray. I donít want to have to judge whether running a dog team is being cruel to dogs, or not, but when you consider the alternative, theyíre happy, well-kept, living dogs."

"Animals have their rights," she sobbed, not liking Johnís lecture.

"They do," John agreed. "If you consider that a right to life, and to a good meal, and care and exercise is important, then those dogs are very well off indeed. They could be dead, would have been dead, all of them, if they werenít running a dog team. Itís a small price to pay."

"How do you know so much about it?" she asked.

"You remember Josh Archer? That kid I introduced you to at the beach last fall? Heís Markís brother-in-law, and he works with Mark training the dogs."

"But they whip the dogs, they mistreat them."

"No, they donít," John said. "They donít even own whips. The dogs are all carefully trained to respond to voice commands. Believe me, I thought that too, until Josh set me straight."

"But . . . where are you taking me?" she asked, only now paying attention to where John was driving. "This isnít the way to my apartment."

"Iím taking you to my place," John said. "I want to get a look at your knee and bandage it up for you. You need that, and a good, stiff drink, I think. Then, Iíll take you to your place."

It was a act of kindness that touched Heather, as misused as she felt just then.

Johnís house turned out to be smaller than she had imagined, but cozy and neat, not like a bachelor pad at all. They got inside, and he took her coat and hung it in a closet. There was a gas log fireplace in the living room, and John set it to running, more for the cheeriness, than the chill she still felt. "Anything youíd care to drink?" he asked.

"Whiskey and soda would be my choice, she said," but Iíll take anything that you have."

"Got some whiskey around here some place," he said, "but Iíd have to look for it. How about a screwdriver?"

"I can do screwdrivers," she said, sitting down on the couch in front of the fireplace.

In a couple of minutes, he put a drink in her hand, and then brought a first aid kit out from the bathroom. While she watched, he knelt down before her, rolled up her pants leg, and treated her knee. "Just scraped it a little," he said. "No point in putting a bandage on it, but Iíve got some goop Iíll rub on it." He did, and a few minutes later, rolled her pant leg back down and put a couple of safety pins in the tear. "Thatíll hold till you get home," he said, "but I think Iíd consider it a new rag, after that."

"Thanks, John," she said with feeling. "It seems like forever since anyoneís been nice to me. Itís getting pretty lonely out there."

John shrugged. "Welcome to the club," he said. "Itís been lonely around here, too. It just doesnít seem like Christmas, this year."

Heather was surprised to detect pain in that statement, something like the pain that she felt. "Whyís that?" she said, pushing a little.

"Well, you know that my wife walked out on Linda and me years ago, so itís always been just Linda and me for Christmas," he said. "This year, sheís with her husbandís family, and it really feels empty. Iíd thought about going to Florida or something, just to get my mind off of it, but I realized that Iíd feel just as empty there."

"My folks died in a car wreck, years ago," Heather said. "There just hasnít been much Christmas for me since then, but this year, I feel lonelier than ever. I hadnít realized how alone I really felt until I realized just how much people hated me this evening."

"Itís tough," John said. "I guess thatís why I brought you here, instead of your apartment. I donít feel like being alone, either. Perhaps, under the circumstances, I could seduce you into staying for dinner."

"Iíll consider myself seduced," she said. "Thatís the nicest thing anyone has said to me in a month or more."

"Iím afraid that itís going to be mostly bachelor cooking," he said. "I cooked a lot for Linda when she was younger, and then she took over doing it, bit by bit. Since she left for college, Iíve really gotten out of the habit, since itís not much fun to cook for myself. How does fish sticks and tater tots sound?"

"Iíd settle for sharing a can of beans," she said. "I know all about cooking for myself."

"It doesnít take much to please you," he smiled.

"Not tonight," she said as he got up to go to the kitchen. She heard him bustling around for a few minutes, but it was nice to just sit and stare into the flickering of the fire. How nice it was that John had come along when he had! His kindness and gentleness had taken the edge off of her loneliness and depression. Apparently, she wasnít totally without friends in Spearfish Lake, after all.

He was back in a few minutes. He sat down in a chair across from her. "Iíll have to go out and tend the timer a couple of times," he said, "but we should be able to eat in half an hour or so. Can I freshen your drink?"

"No need," she said. "I havenít touched it."

"So how goes it with the snake?" he asked, looking to make conversation.

"John, just for one night, please indulge me," she said. "There are four things that I donít want to talk about: Dogs, snakes, sewers, and the Defenders of Gaea."

"Thatís fine with me," he said. "I didnít much want to talk about them, either."

They sat for a while, just looking at the fire, before trying to say anything. "You miss your daughter, donít you?" Heather said finally.

"I miss her a lot, especially this time of the year," John said. "I tried to be a good father and mother for her. Itís hard when youíre a man with a daughter. Thereís some girl things that are hard to share. But, I guess she turned out all right."

They talked for a while longer, with John getting up occasionally to deal with dinner. With her injunction, it was hard to find a safe topic, and John talked for a while about coaching the softball team to the state finals a few years before. Surprisingly, Heather found herself getting interested in the story of how Brandy Evachevski had pulled off two great last-inning saves to pull out the championship. "Sheís Dannyís sister," he explained. "Thereís been some really good kids come out of that family. Everybody talks about Jennifer, but sheís not the only one."

Heather had heard people in town talking about Jennifer Evachevski but hadnít yet connected her with Jenny Easton. She was about to ask about Jennifer when the oven timer dinged. "Thereís dinner," John said. "Iíll get it out of the oven, and then I guess Iíd better call on your car. I forgot all about it."

He was back a couple of minutes later. "Your carís at the Sunoco station," he reported. "One of the cops found it, and didnít want it blocking the snowplows, so he had it towed. You can pick it up in the morning."

"Great," she said. "Thatís one less thing to worry about. Itís good to know somebody cares."

"I care," John said.

"I know you do," she replied, stabbing at a piece of fish with her fork. "Thank God for that."

All too soon, they were finished with their dinner. "Iíll be glad to make another drink, and you can stick around for a while," John said. "Or, I can take you back to your apartment, if you like."

Tears welled up in Heatherís eyes again. "John, the last thing in the world I want to do right now is to go back to that cold, lonely, empty apartment."

"That bad, huh?"

"You remember that girl at the Halloween party? The one who filled in for the country-western singer, when she got sick? There was one song she sang that really describes how I feel right now."

"She sang several, I seem to recall."

"Yeah, but there was one that hit it on the nose. John, would you take the ribbon from my hair?"

*   *   *

Mike stared at the letter, time passing without notice. What a windfall! The information he had there was dynamite that could blow up the whole impasse over the sewer separation system Ė if he could figure out how to use it. Under the circumstances, using it might seem a little unethical, but fortunately, he had time to figure out how to use it properly.

The overt tone of the letter indicated that the Defenders of Gaeaís interest in the Gibsonís water snake was mild, at best. Everyone had assumed that it was a big, well-funded thing, but the letter indicated that it was a shoestring operation, on its last legs if further funding didnít come through. Blackbarn needed to know that; it was an obvious first step.

The puzzle was in the donor. Clearly, the letter was worded to not reveal any information about the source. Mike suspected that Heather knew who the donor was, but couldnít be sure, and she certainly wasnít the person to ask. The letter did say that the donor was located in southern California, but that they had Spearfish Lake connections. Also, anyone who could afford to donate $25,000 to the Defenders of Gaea had to have money. "The donor closely monitors events there," the letter said, and all of a sudden, lightning struck.

There was no way of telling for sure, but the easiest way to monitor events in Spearfish Lake was through him Ė by reading the Record-Herald.

That got Mike up out of his chair, heading for the mail room. He knew of one person, and only one, who fit the description, but there might be someone he was overlooking. He went through the trays until he found the one with the California plates in it, then started leafing slowly through the plates, reading each name carefully.

It turned out that Mike knew most of the twenty-two California subscribers, by reputation, anyway. Several, he had met, at one time or another, but none seemed to fit the bill.

The only name left that fit the bill was the one California subscriber who didnít have a plate in the Addressograph file Ė because her paper was hand-addressed for next-day air each Wednesday.

Of course, Mike realized, it had to fit. Sheíd done those ads for the Defenders of Gaea that heíd seen on TV. Why the hell would Jenny do such a thing?

Jennyís phone number in Malibu was on her motherís Rolodex. Mike went to the office and dialed her, but was met with nothing but ringing. On about the tenth ring, he remembered Jenny saying she was doing that Christmas special from Disney World, and of course, sheíd be there. There was no way to reach her that he knew of.

With the phone hung up again, Mike stared at the letter some more. Why would Jenny have given them the money to send a troublemaker to her home town?

Be fair, Mike thought. No one thought of Heather Sanford as a troublemaker until a month or so ago, when sheíd revealed her true colors. When she first showed up in Spearfish Lake, sheíd come like a gift from the heavens, bringing salvation. He hadnít had any idea she was a troublemaker when heíd written that story on her last summer.

Jenny probably thought she was doing the right thing, Mike realized. That would have had to have been back in the early summer, before her vacation. Perhaps doing something like that would have made her feel a little closer to home.

This all put a little different spin on things. "The donor closely monitors activities there," kept going through his mind. Of course she did. Blake had said that it was downright dangerous to get between Jenny and her Record-Herald. She had to be aware by now that what had seemed an asset had turned into a liability.

Or did she? The news of the lawsuit hadnít made it into this weekís paper. Certainly the implications hadnít.

Damn, heíd have liked to talk this over with someone. He couldnít talk to Mark about it, since he wouldnít realize all the ins and outs. He couldnít talk to any of the Evachevskis, because theyíd feel defensive about Jennifer. He couldnít even talk to Kirsten, because she might say something to Carrie, or someone. He could have talked to Webb; he had a twisted mind that loved little gossip puzzles like this, and had a magic for putting two and two together Ė but Webb and his wife were off in Florida. Mike knew that heíd have to solve this one on his own.

Actually, it was fairly easy to solve, at least part of it. The community needed to be aware of all the implications of the lawsuit, and with it, all the implications of having the Defenders of Gaea interested in the community. That story would have to be aimed at just one person, although the whole community would read it. If the donor werenít Jenny, it wouldnít matter.

All of a sudden, he realized that he was just as pleased that he hadnít been able to reach her. That way, she could take care of the problem without anyone in Spearfish Lake knowing for sure that sheíd caused it. And, if it hadnít been her after all, no big deal.

Quite suddenly, Mikeís thinking changed from strategy to writing, and this story, he could write. He booted up the computer, ready to flesh it out.

The computer was still going through its boot cycle when another thought hit him. He really didnít know much about the Defenders of Gaea. Heíd always thought of it as one of the big, loud-mouthed environmental organizations with more rhetoric than brains, and Heatherís actions in the last month seemed to prove it. Heíd never had much respect for groups like that, but he didnít have the facts to back it up.

He looked at the clock. It was well after five now, pushing six. On a Friday, the weekend of Christmas, itíd be difficult to find out much of anything. There werenít many places to call, anyway.

There was one place he could call, and they had an office down in Camden. They might be open this late. He grabbed a copy of the paper, and opened it to the classified section.

Apparently the woman at the Better Business Bureau had a computer, too, because she came back with the reply in seconds. "They show only forty-nine percent of their funds actually going to the charity, according to the Philanthropic Activities Agency report," she said. "We consider that pretty borderline."

"Are you saying that itís a scam?" Mike asked, a little surprised at the reply.

"That close to the borderline, itís very possible," the woman said. "They show an annual audit, but good bookkeeping could cover up a lot more. I can give you the number of the California Attorney Generalís office if you want more information."

"California?" Mike asked. "I thought their headquarters was in Washington."

"It shows their main offices to be in California," she said. "Thatís where they file their annual report."

That sounded a little fishy, for some reason Mike couldnít put his finger on. "Give me that number you mentioned," he said. Webb was going to have little green worms when he saw the phone bill, but all of a sudden, he realized he was on to an even bigger story. There was a good chance he wouldnít gripe very long.

The California Attorney Generalís office couldnít add much more to what Mike already knew from the Better Business Bureau, other than the fact that the girl there didnít seem to think much of the Defenderís of Gaeaís administrative-to-charities ratio, either.

All of a sudden, that wing of the story collapsed. He could print that both the California Attorney General and the Better Business Bureau considered the Defenders of Gaea to be a borderline case, but that wasnít as good as calling them an outright scam.

Just then, the phone rang. It always seemed to ring right when Mike was dead in the middle of a complicated train of thought.

It proved to be Mark. "Your drivewayís plowed, old buddy," he said. "Kirsten says to come on home."

"Thanks, Mark," he said. "Is Kirsten right there?"

"Yeah, Iím at your place," he said.

"Let me talk to her," he said.

Kirsten came onto the phone a moment later. "Whatís up, honey?" she asked.

"Somethingís come up," he said. "Iím going to have to stay a little longer."

"How much longer? Should I hold supper?"

"Donít," he said. "I donít know. Iíll get something."

California. California. Mike wondered how he could find out something that far away. There ought to be someone he could ask.

Of course. Why hadnít he thought of it sooner? He grabbed the phone book from the desk drawer, checked the area code, and dialed information. "What city, please?" the operator said.

"Los Angeles," Mike told her.

"What party are you trying to reach?"

"Los Angeles Times."

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