Busted Axle Road
Chapter 19

Copyright© 1993, 2001, 2010

Even though the days had been nice, the water in the swamp was still pretty cold, and Pam Appleton could only stand to slog around in it for so long before it started to get to her.

She'd been back home for almost ten days, now; she'd only been marking time in Athens, hoping something would turn up to keep her going over the summer. There'd been a project down in Texas she'd been hoping to get funding for, but it just hadn't come through, and it had begun to look like her summer project was going to be the grill person in a Burger Bummer. Messing around in the swamps around Spearfish Lake looking for snakes was a lot more preferable to that. The grant hadn't come though, yet, but Dr. Gerjevic was working on it, and they'd decided that a little preliminary investigation couldn't hurt. If she could turn up a population of Gibson's Water Snakes in the interim, it might not only mean a grant, but a project that could carry her a long way. It hadn't taken much convincing.

She slid off her waders and shivered; the cold swamp water had soaked into her very bones. It was time to go home, fix a cup of coffee, and slip into the tub, with the water as hot as she could stand it, to try to soak up a little warmth like a snake in the sun.

As she drove into town, she drove past Spearfish Lake Appliance. The sign, "HOT TUBS AND SPAS" sounded especially good to her. In fact, she could see that someone was loading a redwood hot tub onto the truck, so someone was going to have a nice experience. As cold as she was, it would sure be nice to soak her bones in a hot tub, but she knew that she'd have to settle for the bathtub.

It was good to get home. Her folks were both at work, so she had the house to herself, even though it was near lunchtime. She knew she'd really rather had good coffee from the coffeepot, but it would take time to heat, so she nuked some hot water in the microwave while she peeled out of her wet clothes. She was nearly naked when the bell rang; she spooned some instant coffee into the cup and headed for the bathroom, where the water was already running.

It was almost too hot, in other words, just right. She set her coffee on the lip of the tub, set the phone on the floor beside it, took off the rest of her clothes, and slid into the water. If she scrunched down and folded her legs a little, she could sink down to where only her head was out of the water. It felt good. She lay there, just reveling in the warmth, while she organized her thoughts before she called Dr. Gerjevic.

It was almost painful to do it, but she slid herself a little upright, took a sip of coffee, then picked up the phone and dialed the herpetology lab at Athens.

It took a minute to get Gerjevic on the phone. "So, are you having any luck?" Gerjevic asked.

"A little bit," Pam said. "I spent another three hours out this morning, and I actually saw a sipedon sipedon, just laying out in the sun. He was a little torpid; I don't think he's been awake long."

"That's progress of a sort," Gerjevic said. "At least we know the sipedons are stirring, so it would be reasonable to assume that a colony of sipedon gibsonis living in the marshes would be stirring, too."

"That's what I thought," Pam said. "That's the first one I've seen. That water is still pretty cold."

"Any progress on the sewer system angle?"

"Afraid not," Pam said. "I talked to some of the men that work on the sewers, and they say they see snakes once in a while, but not a one of them would know a garter snake from a boa constrictor. I showed them what a natrix sipedon looks like, and they promised to try and catch anything they see like that if the chance should come along."

"Maybe you'll get lucky," Gerjevic commented.

Holding the phone carefully, Pam slid down in the water a little. "Maybe," she admitted. "Of course, anything we get from them is going to probably have been whacked with a shovel two or three times, but it might still be identifiable."

"It's a pity, but you're probably right."

"Yeah," Pam agreed, then went on. People were people. Most people, however misguided, didn't like snakes, and she knew it. "Then, I got to thinking that at least some snakes might get washed down to the sewage treatment plant, so I went down there to poke around. The plant superintendent says he's never seen any snakes in the system, but he says that there's a macerator on the intake side of the plant, so he wouldn't be likely to unless they were in real little pieces."

"Well, good thinking, anyway," Gerjevic said. "It looks like we're back to TV cameras."

"A little good news there," Pam said. "Mr. Knoblauch, the sewer system manager, says that there's some lines he'd like to inspect with a camera. He doesn't have a lot in the budget for it, but maybe he can come up with some matching funds if we're willing to share videotapes."

"Good thinking, Pam. Every little bit helps."

"What progress are you making with a grant?" she asked. "Local match isn't worth much if we don't have the basic funding."

"I talked to the Fish and Wildlife Service in Minneapolis again this morning," Gerjevic said. "After going over that specimen forwards and backwards, the same way we did, they come up with the same conclusion we did. In other words, it might be a sipedon gibsoni, and it might not be. The only way we'll know is to find other specimens."

"We keep coming back to the same problem," she said.

"Yes," Gerjevic said, "But it's an interesting enough question that they're giving it some consideration. I doubt very much that we'll get everything we ask for, but we should be able to get partial funding from them."

That was good news! "How partial?" she asked.

"No way of telling," Gerjevic said. "Maybe fifty percent."

"I wish it was more," Pam said. It was a last minute request, and they'd cut it pretty tight. Fifty percent funding on that request would pay for the administrative costs and a reasonable stipend for her, even a little bit to hire some local help if it was needed. Or, it could pay for a reasonable program of television inspection of the sewers, if Mr. Knoblauch pitched in. It wouldn't pay for both, and Pam knew it. "With fifty percent funding, we've got less than a fifty percent chance of settling the question," she said flatly.

"I'm aware of that," Gerjevic said, a little prissy. "I've started writing to some of the advocacy organizations with our problem, in hopes that we might find some funding there. People like the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, Defenders of Gaea, that sort of thing. If we can get some one of them interested, perhaps the Fish and Wildlife Service might be a little more liberal."

Pam shook her head. "I just wish I had something a little more positive to give you for ammunition," she said. "I can poke around here for another week or two, but if we don't get some sort of funding, I'm going to have to get a job for the summer."

"That's ammunition of itself," Gerjevic said. "Especially with your local knowledge."

"Well, I'll keep plugging away," Pam said. "It's supposed to be warm for the next few days, so maybe the snakes will get moving a little more."

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