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 39

January 1988

The New Yearís Day weekend proved to be pretty decent. It was fairly warm, for winter, although nowhere near the freezing mark, though the wind was blowing pretty good. The day afterwards, Saturday, was beautiful, and Mike got up in the morning with an itch to run the dogs.

He was still pouring himself a cup of coffee when the phone rang. "You want to go for a run today?" Mark asked.

"Might as well," Mike replied. "God, Iím sick of football, after yesterday. Where do you want to go?"

"Iím thinking that we may not get a better time to run that stretch between Turtle Hill and the campground where we stayed last time. With the weekend, thereíll have been snowmobiles out, and the trail ought to be packed pretty well."

"Thatís kind of long," Mike said. "Weíd have to hustle if we want to make it back by dark."

"Why not take our time, and make it another camping trip?" Mark asked. "If you want to do some camping in the winter, this ought to be a pretty good night for it."

"Sounds good," Mike said. "Iíll see if Kirsten has any plans for me. Iíll get back with you."

Kirsten was in the kitchen, feeding Susan. Susan was eating a lot of solid food, now, and had pretty well given up the jug. "Donít tell me," she said. "Let me guess. That was Mark. He wants to go out with the dogs."

"Yeah," Mike said. "We were talking about doing another overnight, like last month."

"Oh, go ahead," she said. "Youíll be moping around here all day if you donít go. Youíre not going to get very many days this nice for it, anyway."

"Thanks, Honey," Mike replied, heading back for the phone. "I really appreciate it."

Mike had Mark back on the line in a minute. "Letís do it," he said.

"All right," Mark said. "Donít hook the dogs up, yet. After you get yourself ready to go, come up and help me get the dog box in the truck, then we can pick your stuff up on the way out."

It took a while. Mike had kept his winter camping gear pretty well organized and in the same place, but it took time to gather it up, make sure he had everything, get dressed, and carry it out to the sled in the barn. He gathered harnesses, lines, and all the other essentials heíd need and put them on the stack and then finally drove the Rabbit up to Markís house.

"Been wondering where you were," Mark said. "Iím just getting ready to load the dog box."

"Man, thatís a lot of stuff," Mike said. "Itís amazing how much of it is for the dogs, and how little of it is for us."

The access road up to the top of Turtle Hill was blocked; there wouldnít be any kids going up there and parking tonight. Mark found a place by the side of the road where the snow wasnít too deep and parked the truck, and they set to unloading the dogs and sleds and gear.

It was after noon before they got on their way, and they knew theyíd have to move fast to make it to the campground and still have enough light to set up camp, so they tried more of a racing pace rather than just a trail trot. Fortunately, the dogs had a good, long initial burst, so when they settled down, they were a good ways up the trail.

The sun was just setting into the trees when they pulled into the little campground again. After their trip of the month before, they had the camp setup routine down pretty well. The only hitch was that the river was frozen over now, and Mike had to use an axe to cut a hole in the river ice for water.

"Still better than melting snow," Mark commented as he tossed their sleeping bags and foam pads into the tent. "I understand that takes forever."

"Weíll have to give it a try, some time," Mike said, "Maybe during the race. I donít think we want to try to carry water. If itís cold, itíll freeze, and if not, itís heavy."

"Maybe itíd just be better to have someone meet us back where we parked the truck," Mark suggested. "We could water the dogs there, and not have to mess around with melting snow."

"Weíve got to talk about this race, anyway," Mike said, dishing up warm dog food from one of the stoves. "Itís got me a little concerned. I mean, you get right down to it, weíre not that experienced, and neither are the dogs. Making a night run up the trail sounds like fun, but itís awful narrow. One of us could get hurt, and then where would we be?"

"I donít know," Mark said, pouring warm water for the dogs into a bucket. "Maybe we should just plan on running together. We can do a grand drag race start out of the festival for the benefit of the crowd, then get back together again around your place or my place, then run together out to Warsaw and back. Then, when we go back by our places, we can turn it into a drag race again."

"Good idea," Mike said. "Iím willing. Iíd be just as happy to stay together like that. But, this trail is still awful narrow to be running at night."

"Weíll have pretty close to a full moon most of the night during the race" Mark pointed out.

"Yeah," Mike said, "But the light of that moon isnít going to get down through those pine trees very well. Hell, thereís a dozen sweepers that we ducked under today that could lay us out cold if we missed any of them."

"We could take the axe on our way back out tomorrow, and knock them down," Mark suggested.

"Thereís still more trail," Mike said. "The sweepers are worse the other way you go from here. Heck with all that, Iím not sure weíll be able to make it out here for trail maintenance before the race."

"What are you suggesting?" Mark asked.

Mike shrugged. "If we start at first light, and cut our layover at Warsaw down to a couple of hours, or so, then weíd be back on the part of the trail you maintain by the time itís dark, and there arenít any sweepers there. We could run at night the rest of the way in."

"Ryan Clark wonít to like that idea," Mark observed. "He wants this as a crowd attraction. Heís not going to get much of a crowd if we start at six in the morning, and he wonít have much of one if we finish after dark, either."

"Thatís true," Mike said. "Letís think of something else."

The dogs had been fed, and Mark and Mike had finished their own suppers and had the campfire going before the subject came up again. "Hereís an idea," Mark said. "Why donít we run up the railroad grade at night to Warsaw, and leave to come back at first light?"

"Itís not a bad idea," Mike said. "Except that neither of us has run the railroad grade before."

"No great trick," Mark said. "If we could get one more good day, anything like today, we could have Josh or the wives drop us off in Warsaw, and we could run it home in a day."

Mike nodded his head in the firelight. "It might work," he said. "The only thing is, we wonít have a broken trail, and a train could come along."

"I can talk to Jackieís dad about the train schedule," Mark offered. "I donít think theyíre running on weekends now, unless they have to. Hell, I might even be able to talk him into taking the plow up to Warsaw earlier in the week, to break the trail for us."

"That might work," Mike said again. "That way, we could leave in the late afternoon, and it wouldnít matter about running at night. There ought to be plenty of light, and if a railroad engine can get down the trail, the dogs ought to be able to. Theyíd probably be able to scent the oil drips and the ties, and like that."

"There is a problem," Mark said. "The trestle over the river. Weíd have to cross it at night. We could take flashlights, and that would probably make it a little easier, but we really have to run the dogs across it a couple of times, so they know what theyíre doing."

"Sounds reasonable," Mike agreed. "Weíll just have to wait for a decent day to make the trial run down from Warsaw."

"Thereís bound to be a decent day sometime in the next month."

"Maybe one thatís not so decent," Mike suggested. "We havenít had the dogs out in really rotten conditions yet, and who knows what weíll have on race day?"

"Well, if itís really bad, letís just cancel."

"Letís not do that unless we have to. You know, when I realized what Clark had put us up to, I thought this race was a pretty dumb idea. Now, Iím looking forward to it."

"Yeah," Mark agreed. "It could be interesting."

*   *   *

Mike had just put the dogs away Sunday evening, and was settling down to watch the TV news when he heard a knocking on his front door. He got up to answer it, to discover Heather Sanford and John Pacobel standing outside. "Can we talk to you a minute?" Heather asked, subdued and a little downcast. Both of them looked bedraggled, and more than a little tired, like they hadnít been getting much sleep.

"Sure, come on in," Mike said. "Can I get you some coffee?"

"Thatíd be nice," John said. "Regular and straight, if you have it."

"Me, too," Heather said.

Mike looked around the house. It was something of a mess. The TV was going, and Tiffany and Henry were making some noise. "If this is business, maybe weíd better go downstairs," he suggested. "Itíll be quieter there."

"Sure," Heather said, "Fine with me."

As they passed through the kitchen, Mike asked Kirsten to make some coffee and have Tiffany bring three cups downstairs. The three of them went down to the basement, to the cluttered little room that Mike used as a home office. "What can I do for you?" Mike asked.

"Actually, I came to offer you an apology," Heather said. "I shouldnít have acted like that last week. Iím getting pretty certain you were right, after all."

"You mean that the Defenders of Gaea is a scam?"

"No," Heather bristled, "I didnít mean that at all. But, more and more, it looks like there are a couple of crooks at the head of it."

Mike tried to look impassive, but inside, fireworks were going off. Maybe the mountain does come to Mohammed, after all, he thought. "What makes you think that?" he asked.

Heather explained how she and John had spent the weekend downloading the files on the Defenders of Gaea computer, and going over them. "Itís hard as hell to dig out," she said. "But thereís plenty of stuff that doesnít add up. Like, for instance, my paycheck is still coming out of the California office account. But, thereís another account for the Spearfish Lake project that has a payroll check coming out of it too, but I canít find it being transferred to the California office account. Thereís a second paycheck being cut, but Iím not getting it. When John found that, I started getting suspicious."

"Whereís the other check going?" Mike wanted to know.

"I donít know," Heather said. "Itís in a file I canít get into."

"That got us going," John said. "Once we got suspicious, we began looking, and we found other stuff that doesnít quite add up."

"Thereís only one way it adds up," Heather said. "It adds up that McMullen and Harper are crooks, just like you said."

"What are you going to do about it?" Mike asked.

"I donít know," Heather said, hanging her head. "I know Iím done with the Defenders. I donít know what Iím going to do, but that much, I know."

"Thereís stuff weíve found that could cause the IRS to give them some trouble," John said, "But that doesnít solve the problem."

"Thereís nothing conclusive," Heather said. "Plenty of circumstantial evidence, more than enough to suit me, but nothing thatís quite clear-cut. Iím sure that whatís in the locked files would show something, but I canít get to them."

"Thereís two big locked directories," John said. "Well, one of them is huge, anyway. We think itís Harperís. The other one, we think is McMullenís, but it only has about half a meg in it. But, all we can get is the directory name and the size. We canít even get filenames."

"I wish I knew what was in those files," Heather said. "It would either clear things up or disprove them. But, itís clear to me that McMullen and Harper have got to go, or the Defenders will never be what they could be."

"Look," Mike said. "Thereís a guy Iíd like you to talk to. Maybe he can put some heat on them."

"I donít know," Heather said. "The only thing I can think of is that thereís a membership meeting coming up in Washington next month. Well, itís supposed to be a membership meeting, but probably only fifty people will show up. Four of the seven board members, including Harper and McMullen, are up for re-election. All of the voting is done by proxy, but there are hardly ever more than two or three hundred proxies filed. Iíve got the mailing list of the members, and I keep thinking that I could get out a mailing to the members, right at the last minute, and maybe come up with enough proxies to beat them."

"I donít think it will work," John said. "Theyíll catch you at it, and come up with enough proxies to beat you."

"Itís worth a try," Heather said. Theyíd argued about it for more than a day, now. "There isnít much else that we can think of to try. The Defenders of Gaea have done a lot of good over the years. I mean, I can look back at things like Old Brook, and feel proud of what weíve done. I think thatís one of the things that got me suspicious, too. Itís not in the open files at all, but I went to Harper and McMullen with a good project that would really put the heat on the Japanese to stop their whaling. They brushed it off and sent me here instead so they could work this donor for more money, I guess. The project would still work, but itís going to take an organization like the Defenders to pull it off. It would be a shame to give up on the organization, without giving it the best try I can."

Mike didnít totally agree about the Defenders of Gaea; to him the organization still seemed like it spent a lot of time talking without any idea of what they were talking about. But, he kept his reservations to himself; he was sure that Heather and John wanted something, but he wasnít sure what. "I can see that," he said, waiting for the next step.

"I know itís a long shot," Heather said. "But John and I donít have the money to do a mailing like that and make it stick. You said the person whoís the donor for this thing in Spearfish Lake wanted to break McMullenís arms. Do you think theyíd be interested in helping to kick his ass, instead?"

Aha. There it was. "Might be," Mike said with a smile.

"Could you tell us who it is, so we could ask?" John said.

"No," Mike said. "Iíll ask them for you, though. That is, if youíll do something for me."

"Whatís that?" Heather asked.

"Give up," Mike said. "Drop the lawsuit, drop the Spearfish Lake project, and get the hell out of town and leave us to settle this by ourselves."

"But," she said, bristling again, "Thatíll mean giving up any hope of saving an endangered species."

"Heather, come on," Mike said. "No one has seen a Gibsonís water snake in more than half a century. The best herpetologists in the country canít tell if the one Kirsten killed is a Gibsonís water snake, or just a plain old northern water snake with funny immature markings. In fact, they canít say if there ever was a Gibsonís water snake at all, anywhere, or just a group of northern water snakes with funny markings. You know that, and the Fish and Wildlife Service knows that, too. You know the only reason that Pam Appleton pushed it so hard was that if the snake was a Gibsonís, it was a cheap and easy doctorial dissertation. Youíve already told me why Harper and McMullen were so interested."

"But," Heather protested. "Thereís a chance that they could really be there."

"A damn long chance," Mike said. "Look, Iím closer to this than most people, and you know why. After you and Pam couldnít even turn up a trace of them with all the looking you did this summer, you should realize that. It a long shot up against a real long shot, Heather. Which one do you think is going to do more good in the end?"

"I told you," John said philosophically, "Thereís no black and white, just shades of gray."

"If only I knew what was in those locked directories," Heather said. "Then itíd be a good chance, up against what I have to agree is a pretty long one."

Just then, Tiffany came into the office, balancing a tray with cups of coffee. While they talked with her briefly, it gave Mike a chance to think. "Weíre talking business, honey," he said finally. "Can you leave us alone? Thanks for bringing the coffee."

"Sure, Daddy," she said. "Mommy said not to stay."

"Good kid," Pacobel commented after Tiffany had left.

"You donít expect a ten year old to be so level headed," Mike agreed. "Sheís got her little act together."

"Seems like a nice kid," Heather agreed.

"Look," Mike said. "Itís clear that if youíre going to make an attempt to throw out McMullen and Harper, youíre going to have to hit them with everything in the shot locker. John, you ran Battery D; you know you donít fire just one gun at the enemy. Youíre going to have them on the defensive so bad that they wonít have time to counteract your proxy fight. Am I right so far?"

"Thatís about right," John said.

"Then you need more than just a proxy fight," Mike said, deciding to put a couple more chips on the table. "Youíll have to be careful about the timing, and youíre going to want other stuff to throw at them. Remember that guy I mentioned? I really want you to talk to him, not me. He can hit them pretty good. I might be able to stir up something else, too, but it all rides on your agreement to drop the action here."

"Everything will help," Heather said. "All right, it tears me up to say it, but youíve got a deal."

"Iíll make the calls, just as soon as I get notification that the lawsuit has been dropped," Mike said, turning the screws. It would be the middle of the week before he could talk to Jenny, anyway.

"Iíll call Minneapolis, first thing in the morning," Heather promised. "You should get formal notification by Wednesday. Itíll be worth it if we can get rid of Harper and McMullen."

One other ghost of an idea was stirring around in Mikeís head. Heather clearly faced a tough fight, and she was going to need all the help she could get. "Iíve got one other idea," he said. "I canít promise you that itíll work, but let me have the information you have on how you get into the Defenderís mainframe. Phone number, Internet number, code words, file names, directory names, anything you can do to help on getting to those locked files."

"I canít get them open," Heather protested. "I tried."

"Give them to me," Mike repeated. "I canít make any promises, but you never know."

*   *   *

Heather Sanfordís phone was ringing, ringing, ringing. She was in a deep sleep, and at first she thought she was dreaming. Sheíd missed a lot of sleep in the last few days and was out like a light bulb. Finally, she realized that it really was the phone. She had to clamber over Johnís sleeping body to reach it; her weight pressing on top of him woke him a little, and he groaned.

Finally, she made it to the phone. "Yes?" she answered, looking at the clock. 2:10 AM! Who could be calling at this hour on a Tuesday morning?

The reply came in a squeaky voice, obviously faked. "Is this Heather Sanford?" the funny-sounding voice said.

"Yes it is," she said, wondering what was going on. A crank call, probably; sheíd had some of those.

"The passwords you need are ELAD and SIRRAH," the squeaky voice said. "Thatís E-L-A-D and S-I-R-R-A-H. Dale and Harris, backwards, all capital letters." There was a click as the phone hung up.

"Thank you," Heather said into the dead phone. She was still half asleep, still needing to comprehend what sheíd heard.

Suddenly, it hit her. She sprang from the bed, still naked, and raced to the laptop to boot it up. While it was in the boot cycle, she grabbed a robe, plugged the phone line into the modem, and then sat down. It took a minute to access the mainframe in California, and enter her own password. She tried to open the directory she thought was McMullenís, and when the computer asked for the password, she typed, "ELAD."

"ACCESS DENIED" flashed back on her screen.

Could the squeaky voice have been wrong? She tried once again, this time using "SIRRAH" for the password. Instantly, a list of file names began to fill the liquid crystal readout of the laptop.

"All right!" she yelled, grabbing a disk to start downloading the files.

"Whatís happening?" John said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

"The code words," she said excitedly. "They think theyíre being cute, using the otherís first names backwards for passwords."

"But how . . . that phone call?"

"Yeah," she said. "That phone call."

"Who was it?" John said, getting to his feet, and grabbing a bathrobe.

"I donít know," Heather said. "A man, I think. Maybe a younger man, but he was trying to disguise his voice."


"Maybe," Heather said, "Maybe not. It had to come from Mike, somehow or other."

"You know," John said thoughtfully. "His buddy, Mark Gravengood, knows a lot about computers. Maybe he knows somebody who knows something about hacking them."

"Mark Gravengood?" Heather said. "The man who . . .?"

"Yeah," John said. "Maybe he felt sorry about what happened back there before Christmas."

"Remind me to never say a bad word about dog mushers again," Heather said. "My God, look at that!"

The words were flashing across the screen of the laptop too quickly to comprehend all of them, but from the bits and pieces they could catch, it was interesting material, indeed. There were things there they could use.

While they were waiting, Heather got dressed. It was clear that her night was over with. It took a while to download the directory, but it all fit onto one disk. She opened the other directory, the big one, with the "ELAD" password. "God, even the filenames are interesting," John said as they rolled by. "Sure would like to see whatís in that one tagged "SWISS."

"Weíll know before long," Heather said, looking at the size of the directory. There wasnít a lot of time, and there was a lot there. She knew that Harper usually had a cup of coffee or two with McMullen before he accessed the mainframe. Say, ten California time before heíd get around to turning on the terminal. That would be one, here. Damn the slow modem! Thereíd be just enough time to download the whole directory before Harper entered it, just enough time if she kept right at it. She set the laptop to downloading, and turned to the 286, booting it up. She took the disk with the "SIRRAH" directory, and stuck it into the drive. Where to start? There really wasnít a lot left on it, but just at random, she started with one tagged "SHIP."

It took only a few seconds reading the words on the screen to get the meaning. "Those bastards," she said. "Look what theyíre planning on doing to my whale project! Theyíre fucking it all up, just to run another scam!"

"Look," John said, "This is all very interesting, but Iíve got to get up and teach, tomorrow. Iíd better try to get some sleep. Note down anything you think might be interesting, and Iíll look at it later."

Heather didnít look up from the words going by. "OK, fine, whatever," she said. "Those bastards."

Though John tried, he didnít get much sleep. Every time he was about to drop off, another cry of "Those goddamn sons of bitches!" woke him up. Finally, he gave in, got up, got dressed, and pulled a chair up next to Heather as she banged away at the "Page Down" key, looking at file after file. It made the stuff on McMullenís directory look tame by comparison.

"God, I donít even know that we want to give this to the IRS," he said finally, as they looked at a file marked PLANSAIL. "Maybe the FBI would be better."

"Yeah," she said. "Itís a damn guidebook to everything theyíve done. Not much in numbers, but it tells us where to look. Those bastards, those bastards, and to think of what Iíve done for them."

"Itís a road map," John agreed. "Screw teaching today. Iíll call in sick. Heather, weíve got íem like nobodyís been gotten before."

"God, weíve got to hardcopy this, and back it up."

"Back it up to the hard drive," John suggested. "If you need the space, you can kill everything but the DOS files and the directory marked, "GRADES." You can kill that, too, if you back it up to a couple of floppies. Let the hard copies go till later."

Heatherís fingers flew across the keys; in a few seconds, the several disks that sheíd accumulated so far were saved on the hard drive. "Letís look at that SWISS file you suggested," she said.

The "SWISS" file was fairly small, but it was dynamite. "My God," Pacobel breathed. "I donít know how much that is in dollars, but itís a hell of a lot in Swiss francs."

Heather paged back up to the top of the file. There was a conversion rate noted there, from just a few days before. She pulled out a piece of scratch paper, and scribbled a bit. "Just adding up the opening digits, it looks like more than twenty million theyíve got salted away."

"At least," John said. "That doesnít count other assets."

"That really pisses me off," Heather said. "All that money has been stolen from people who gave it to the Defenders in good faith, and now itís locked away in Swiss bank accounts. Damn, the IRS canít even touch it there."

John let out a laugh, a rolling, thunderous laugh that finally brought tears to his eyes. "Boy, wouldnít that tear them up?" he finally managed to say.

"Whatís so damn funny?" she asked, visibly angry.

"Heather," he said, still laughing, but settling down a little. "Weíve got their account numbers, their file numbers, their code names and passwords. We could steal it back, just take it from them, and they couldnít accuse us of doing it without admitting that theyíd stolen it in the first place."

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