by Alan A Sandercott
Short story collection (3)
91 pages. Perfect bound. 5" X 8".
First printing 1999
[Out of Print]
NOTE: This previously published work is covered by copyright.
No printing, copying or use by any means without written permission from the author.
THE GREEN WATER INCIDENT by Alan A Sandercott
Tony's poker hand wasn't all that great, far from a royal flush or even a full house for that matter, but you would never know it from his expression. The four men around the table were seasoned poker players and took the game seriously. Tension in the smoke filled room grew, as did the poker pot in the center of the table. They weren't playing any old penny-anti poker game. Tony displayed his best poker face while rearranging the cards in his hand, a seven, three tens, and a queen. It was Tony's bet.
Tony Wong had been born in southern China around 1885. He and his brother immigrated to Canada seeking fame and fortune as young men. For years they worked the dark kitchens of Vancouver's Chinatown. There in dingy rooms and back alleys, Tony learned the art of gambling, a pastime that would play a major role in his life. Wages were terrible and Tony's acquired skill with a deck of cards was often more profitable than cooking.
At the outbreak of World War II, Tony and his brother had moved north into British Columbia's interior. They built a cafe along the Alaska Highway, north of Dawson Creek. The north was alive with opportunity at the time. Business was good and the two brothers prospered. That's when Tony met his wife, Ida. She was a waitress in the cafe when she captured Tony's heart. Ida was a big buxom woman who could out-swear any logger or mine worker. They soon married. Ida managed the front of the cafe, leaving Tony and his brother with the cooking. On most occasions it was Ida who evicted any boisterous, and over indulged clientele. Fortunately for Tony, Ida was tolerant of his taste for scotch and poker; for when it came to booze, she could hold her own with the best of them.
Tony carefully studied the cards in his hand -- not to mention the faces of his opponents. A cigarette dangled out of the corner of his mouth. He cocked his head back at an angle to avoid the smoke curling up into his eyes. If his calculations were right, there was a thousand dollars in the pot. He reached for the poker chips in front of him, counted out four, and threw them into the pot.
"Another two hundred," he said.
Next to Tony a more cautious player shook his head, folded his hand, and dropped it to the table. "That's it," the man said. "I'm out."
Tony's eyes moved to the man across the table.
"Two hundred to you, George," Tony said.
George was a construction worker from a nearby mine. He was a big burly man who, in his mid fifties, loved to play poker. He was known for his drinking and the annoying habit of continually playing with his poker chips.
"I'll see your two," George said, adding his chips to the pile. Then slowly counting out four more chips with his fingers. "Another two hundred," he said, with a sly grin.
The next in line was the dealer, a quiet little man, who also worked up at the mine. He just shook his head and pushed his cards forward. "I'm gone, too. You guys fight it out. Too rich for my liking."
All eyes then flashed to Tony to see what he would do.
Tony didn't scare easily, and he had been in enough games with George to know that he might be bluffing. Long seconds passed like hours as he stared at the cards in his hand.
"I'm in," Tony said, with stubborn determination.
He wasn't about to let George simply buy the pot. Tony was too much of a gambler for that.
"Cards?" The dealer asked.
Tony fingered the cards in his hand for a second, then withdrew the seven and slid it facedown towards the dealer. "One," he said, confidently fixing his gaze on George's face. He reached down and picked up his new card, and without looking at it, slipped it into his hand.
George was stone faced as he dropped two cards to the table. "I'll take two," he said.
The room was silent as the dealer peeled off two cards and slipped them over to George. A big smile crossed George's face as he picked up the new cards. He slowly fingered them in hand, rearranging them, over and over.
"It's still your bet," the dealer reminded Tony.
Tony didn't need any reminding. He loved to gamble, perhaps a little too much since his brother's death. He never sobered up for months after the accident. He gambled heavily, with little regard to winning or losing. But that was behind him now. With little more than a glimpse at his hand, Tony reached for his chips.
"I'll go two more," he said. That brought the pot up to two thousand. He hoped the little stack of twenty-dollar chips he slid towards the pot would force George to fold.
George could feel all the eyes on him while he stared at the cards in his hand, his fingers clicking the chips in front of him, creating an annoying suspense in the room.
"I don't think you've got it," George said, trying to interpret the expression on Tony's face.
"Cost you two hundred to find out," Tony reminded him.
Seconds passed as George pondered his next move.
"Time to find out," George said. He counted out the two hundred and pushed the chips towards the pot. "And," he said, before Tony had time to react, "... another fifty. Now we'll see how brave you are."
"You guys are both nuts," the dealer laughed. "There's over two grand in there."
For the first time since the round had started, Tony allowed a smile to cross his face. "Call," he said, and quickly flipped a fifty-dollar chip into the pot. "Let's see what you've got."
"Okay," George said, his face breaking into a big grin as he laid down his hand. "Full house. Nines and Jacks. Read 'em and weep."
In unison, all eyes switched to Tony.
"That's a good hand ... but," Tony said, systematically laying down his cards face up. The three tens, then the queen, and then ever so slowly he produced his other card, a ten!
It was four in the morning when Tony switched off the lights and wandered out side for a leak. The night was cool and the sky was ablaze with stars. George and the other two men were standing by George's company truck.
"One for the road?" George called out to Tony and held up a bottle of scotch.
Next to poker, scotch, or 'Chinese tea' as he called it, was probably Tony's only other weakness. No one ever visited Tony's kitchen without imbibing in a little 'Chinese tea'. Tony took the bottle and raised it to his lips. Then he passed it back to George.
"First one today," George proclaimed, taking a shot from the bottle.
"Bullshit!" One of the men laughed at George's comment.
"Well all most," George relented. "But definitely not the last."
And it wasn't his last. The bottle made a few more rounds of the group, before clunking around empty in the back of George's pickup as the three men headed back up to camp.
So ended a rather usual night at the New Oriental Cafe along that dusty stretch of Alaska Highway. The setting was picture postcard, but rough. Oh, the location had its downside all right; stuck way off in the boondocks. Every time a truck rolled along the gravel road, a cloud of dust rose that could choke a moose. The buildings lacked the amenities of civilization. The cafe was a forty-foot doublewide trailer, transformed into a dining area, kitchen, washrooms, storage, and a small room for the Billie, their new cook. A small power plant supplied the electricity, and communication to the outside world was by radiotelephone. Two smaller singlewide trailers were tucked back into the trees, one next to the cafe for Tony and Ida, and one used by the two waitresses. The second trailer, however, was much farther from the cafe. 'For privacy,' the girls maintained. Not surprisingly, most of the time the number of vehicles at the little trailer out-numbered those parked at the cafe.
Boredom was a constant companion, as were the incessant insects. The area had more than its fair share of flies, deer flies, gnats, black flies, and the ever-tormenting mosquitoes. Everyone joked that the mosquitoes were so large and plentiful they could pack away small animals! No one escaped the mosquito's wrath -- except the local natives that is. For some unknown reason, the Indians and mosquitoes seemed to have a truce -- a luxury not enjoyed by the white man.
Tony stood outside for a while, clearing his head of the scotch and cigarette smoke. The night was exceptionally quiet -- the morning birds still asleep in the trees. He looked off into the distance, miles and miles of gravel, ruts, and dusty highway, no matter which way one traveled. Right next to the parking lot there was a small intersection. A narrower road, still choked with dust from George's pickup, led to the 'PLATEAU MINING COMPANY' camp twenty miles up the Sikanni Valley. Other than the highway traffic, it was the mining camp that supplied all of Tony's business.
Tony took one last look around, patted the neat little bundle of bills in his shirt pocket, muttered to himself in Chinese, yawned, and made his way over to his trailer. Within two hours he would be up working in the kitchen. Just another day in the north.
Business was brisk as the warm summer months approached. Each week the old bus, converted to haul both passengers and freight, traveled north on Thursdays, returning south again the following day. Its meal and rest breaks at the New Oriental Cafe were the only bright spot for passengers on an otherwise long and boring trip.
As luck would have it, when the bus pulled into the parking lot one dusty Friday morning, the night-shift from the mine was already there and about to order. Well, miners being a good-hearted bunch and with nowhere in particular to go in any hurry, they agreed to let the bus passengers order first. To pass the time a few of the miners plugged coins into the jukebox, filling the room with music to quell the roar of the crowd. Suddenly, the voice of a young woman was heard over the noise. Her singing caught the crowd's attention. Instantly, all eyes were on the stranger standing by the jukebox. She was young, blonde, and beautiful. Her melodious voice commanded the attention of all in the room. As she finished her song the room exploded into a frenzy of whistles, applause, and howls of approval. Tony was quick to realize the opportunity and promptly offered her a job, which she in turn was quick to accept. That dusty morning the cafe's staff increased by one singing waitress, and the population of the separate trailer grew to three.
There was another crowd pleaser at the New Oriental Cafe, and that was Billie's homemade pies. Billie was a Chinese cook, well on in years, and fat. He spoke very little English, seldom ventured out into the front of the cafe, spending his time either in the kitchen or his room. But everybody knew Billie, whose pies would melt in your mouth. The single biggest consumer of Billie's pies was Corporal Dennis Richards of the RCMP. Dennis was stationed in Dawson Creek. He regularly patrolled the stretch of Alaska Highway north of Dawson Creek and became a familiar face around the cafe.
Ironically, excellent as they were, it would be Billie's pies that would bring dark stormy clouds over an otherwise bright spot on the highway. Those clouds drifted in early one August morning.
Tony was unlocking the front doors and Ida was busy putting on the first pots of coffee when Billie burst in from the kitchen, howling in Chinese and waving his arms like he had just seen a ghost. He led Tony back into the kitchen and pointed to the sinks. There was water in the sink okay, but it was a sickly green color. Tony quickly turned the taps off and on a few times and to his and Ida's amazement, the water came out green! Ida quickly filled a glass and held it up to the light. It seemed perfectly clean. She held it to her nose. No smell either. A pail of water, drawn directly from the well out back, was the same. Tony was completely baffled.
An hour passed, and then two. Green water remained. In desperation Tony placed a radiotelephone call to Barry Wiseman, a good friend in Vancouver. Barry was not only a friend and good poker player, but he just happened to be the area Health Inspector. Tony explained the problem, hoping his friend would have some answers; but he didn't.
"Let me make a few calls," Barry said.
Another hour passed by during which time George showed up. He had no idea what the problem was either. Then came the return call from Vancouver.
"Sorry Tony," Barry said, over the radiotelephone. "No one here has the slightest idea what it is. We need a water sample. Can you get one down to me right away?"
"I'll put one on the bus tomorrow. Best I can do. How soon will you know what's wrong?" Tony asked.
"I don't know, but you better not use the water ... at least not without first boiling it for at least three minutes. In the meantime, get that sample down to me right away."
Business had been good up to that point, and there was no way he was prepared to shut down the cafe. Tony said nothing to the others, but walked out into the kitchen. He returned in a moment with his 'Chinese tea'.
"I need some of this," he said. He didn't even ask the others, just poured them each a glass.
"What are we going to do?" Ida asked.
"We have to boil the water."
"It would still be green. I can't serve green water to our customers."
"Then serve them beer."
"Not everyone drinks beer, you know," Ida said.
"Tell you what," George said, suddenly getting to his feet. "I'll haul you a couple of barrels of water from the camp. That should keep you going for a while."
"We use an awful lot of water in here," Tony reminded him.
"Just use it for drinking, that's all," George said. "And save me some of that Chinese tea."
The next afternoon Dennis's patrol car pulled up in front of the cafe. There was a woman in the car with him. Dennis introduced her as Miss Mary Majors-Hawthorn -- a Public Health Nurse from Vancouver. Mary was a light framed woman in her early forties. Her distinctive accent left no doubt as to her English background.
"Mary is here to check out your water problems," Dennis explained.
"How did you get here so fast?" Tony asked.
"I received a phone call from the Health Inspector. He said it was urgent that I fly right up here," she said. "Normally, I wouldn't make a trip like this but Mr. Wiseman can be very persuasive. He even promised a police escort."
"Barry's a good friend," Tony said.
"That's what I understand. He also mentioned something about a couple of ... full-houses?"
Tony laughed. "That's him all right."
"Mary flew in this morning and I brought her right out," Dennis said.
"That's great," George said, giving her a welcome handshake.
"Mr. Wiseman said your water has turned green?" Mary asked.
"You better come and see for yourself," Tony said.
Mary went right to work taking her samples to be sent for testing. She was also quick to confirm that the water from the well was not to be used for anything until she got the test results. That day Dennis cut his trip short and returned directly to Dawson Creek with the water samples. Plan was to fly the samples from Dawson Creek directly into Vancouver. Mary decided to remain until after the test results were known, so, George arranged for her to stay in a guest room at the company's married quarters.
When Mary arrived back at the cafe the next morning, the water was still green. After breakfast one of the off shift mine workers offered to take Mary up to the mine for a visit. She took advantage of the opportunity to conduct a health inspection the mining camp. All went well. She was more than impressed by the condition of the kitchen facilities, staying to enjoy a hardy lunch.
It was when her obliging tour guide took her up to the site of the mine itself that things started to go wrong. At first she was thrilled with the timberline scenery, the mountain stream meandering through the rocks.
"This is absolutely beautiful," she remarked.
"Sure is," her guide agreed. "That creek there, that's where we get our water. Comes right down the mountain. That's why it tastes so good."
"You mean the mine uses water from this creek?" she inquired, noting the creek bordered the mine's tailings.
Well, by mid afternoon Mary had the camp in an uproar. She issued instructions to boil all water used for drinking or cooking. That would prove a formidable task, given that the kitchen cooked for seventy men.
The camp manager was fit to be tied.
"Absolutely not!" He bellowed.
"Well I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I have no choice," Mary said, trying to maintain her composure after the man's sudden outburst. "There is too much chance of contamination from the mine tailings. I will have the water tested right away. But, until I receive the results, the water must be boiled for three minutes before it can be used for drinking or cooking."
The man pleaded with her to reconsider, but she remained steadfast.
Frantic radiotelephone messages to the mine's head office accomplished little more than confirming Mary's authority. With nowhere else to draw water from on the mountain, it would have to be boiled before using. The damage done, her popularity at the camp somewhat tarnished, she asked to be given a ride back to the cafe.
Mary didn't say as much, but everyone around the cafe was quickly blaming the water problem on the mine site. "After all," one of the men concluded, "the well outside is not that far from the creek." That convinced Mary to radiotelephone her superiors who in turn contacted the mine's head office. Reluctantly, but with little else to go on and fearing the worst, the mining company accepted the possibility that they might be contaminating the creek. They issued instructions to temporarily dam the creek above the tailings in an attempt to contain the problem and directed their engineers north for further investigation.
Considering the possibility that the cafe's water may be hazardous to human health, the Health Department in Vancouver issued instructions to Mary. She was to close down the cafe. She felt reluctant to do it, but given the number of people who ate at the cafe, she knew she had no choice.
When she told Tony and Ida of the decision, Tony jumped from his chair and stormed into the kitchen, swearing as he went. Fortunately, for the likes of Mary, he did so in his native tongue.
"We can't just shut down," Ida argued.
"It's only until we make sure the water is safe to use," Mary promised.
"How long is that going to be?"
"I'm not sure. It will depend what they find out in Vancouver."
"That could take forever. We can't afford to stay closed. What about the mineworkers? What about the bus? We have a contract with them you know."
"I know, and I'm sorry," Mary said, "but I have no choice."
Doom and gloom prevailed until George drove up to the back door of the cafe. He had the day's water supply from camp. Tony and Ida quickly filled him in on Mary's decision to shut them down. Well, George was furious! He jumped up into the back of his pickup, cursing under his breath. He lunged at the barrels, knocking them over and sending their contents gushing out onto the ground. Then he sat on the edge of the pickup box to think.
Within ten minutes George was inside with a proposition for Mary.
"Listen!" He said. "There's another creek about five miles down the road from here. How about if I haul water from there?"
"I'm not sure. I -- "
"Come on!" George cut in. "It's perfectly good water. It's five miles away."
"I understand that."
"It's good water. It has to be. The creek is on the other side of the valley. It doesn't go anywhere near the mine."
"I don't know, without testing -- "
"Tony will boil it, right Tony?" George offered, still trying to convince Mary.
She thought about it for a moment. She too, wanted to find a reasonable solution.
"Will you drive me to see the creek? I would like to see it for myself."
George didn't need to be asked twice.
Once Mary saw the new creek she felt a lot better. It was just as George had described it. She knelt by the water, scooping some up in cupped hands.
"Smells good -- but I still want it boiled," she insisted.
"Consider it done," George agreed.
By Saturday morning the cafe was into its third day on boiled water. Beer sales were great, but customers were scarce. Staff tempers were growing thin. George continued to haul water from the new creek. Mary was like an old mother hen. Each time the water barrels arrived at the cafe, she would supervise the unloading.
"Okay," she would say, "but make sure you boil it first."
And each time, Tony would promise to boil it. The possibility of having to close the cafe rested heavy on Tony's mind. He would agree to just about anything to keep the place open. He wouldn't admit it, but they had sunk every cent they had into the business. If they had to shut down, they would be in serious trouble. He slid deeper and deeper into his bottle of Chinese tea.
That afternoon, rather than just sit around doing nothing, George suggested they set up a bucket brigade and empty the well. "It can't hurt," he said.
With the help of a few volunteers, green water soon flowed across the parking lot.
In short order, however, Mary put a stop to it.
"Nothing will be gained," she reasoned. "The water will simply drain back into the well again." No, if they wanted to empty the well, Mary insisted they must haul the water away.
Spirits somewhat dampened, the crew never the less continued, just as soon as George made a fast trip to the mine to borrow some more barrels.
Throughout the afternoon the men hauled bucket after bucket from the well and dumped it into the barrels. The water was then hauled far enough away to keep Mary happy. By dark the well was dry. Tired volunteers then accepted a grateful Tony's offer of food and drink. Heavy on the drink!
As the evening progressed, the problem of the well water was forgotten and the staff returned to their regular work. Beer sales boomed, and as the Saturday night frenzy continued inside -- outside, the water well slowly refilled.
The next morning Mary checked the well water with surprising results. The color was gone! Unfortunately though, it was Sunday and her office was closed, so Mary refused to relent on her original order to haul water from the creek and boil it. Like it or not, George continued with the daily water runs. For Tony and Ida, there was finally a ray of hope.
Monday, a full five days after the mysterious green water discovery, things took a turn for the better. The Department of Health in Vancouver called for Mary on the radiotelephone; the water samples tested fine. The laboratory, however, was unable to explain the strange green color, but it no longer posed a health problem. Tony placed a call to the camp for George to let him know. Billie was more relieved than the rest; he could finally stop boiling water.
Ironically, no sooner had they received clearance to use the water, when the cause of all the trouble walked through the front door. It came in the form of two scared twelve-year old boys. Their mothers were right behind them.
"Mr. Wong, our boy's have something to say to you," one mother said, maneuvering the boys into a chair.
"Go ahead," the second mother said to her son. "Tell Mr. Wong what you told us."
"We took a pie," the boy admitted, sheepishly.
"From where?" Tony asked.
"In the back."
"From the kitchen?"
The boy stared at the floor, unable to look Tony in the eye.
"From the porch," he admitted.
Several minutes of questioning revealed that it was not the first pie to meet such a fate. The two boys were simply bored. There was nothing for young boys to do around the married quarters. They had been banned from the swimming hole for a week after stuffing a handful of tadpoles down the front of one girl's bathing suit. The boys then started hanging around the cafe. Billie often slipped them a snack out the back door. It didn't take long for the boys to learn which days Billie baked pies. Billie always put the pies out in the porch to cool. The temptation proved too much for the boys, and Billie didn't seem to miss the odd pie.
"Tell Mr. Wong the rest," the mother instructed again.
"We didn't mean anything. It was just a joke," the boy said, and through teary eyes he described how Billie had caught them taking a pie. There was no way the boys could understand Billie's yelling in Chinese, but he did put the holy fear into them. Billie had never said anything to Tony about the incident.
"There's more," the mother said, prodding the boy's shoulder.
"We didn't mean to," he sobbed.
"You have to tell him everything," the mother instructed.
The boy quickly glanced up at his friend, and then back at Tony. He began to cry in earnest. Between sobs he revealed the answer to a mystery.
"We put color stuff in your well."
"You what?" Tony asked.
"We put color stuff in the water," he repeated, staring down at the floor, tears streaming down his face.
"Why did you do that?"
Neither boy answered.
"It was food coloring," the mother explained. "The boys took a package of food coloring from home and dumped it into your well."
Until that moment Mary had been sitting quietly drinking coffee at another table. When she heard the revelation, she joined the crowd.
"That's what the color was?" Mary asked, relieved. "Food coloring?"
"That's right," the mother confirmed.
Poor Tony. He just stood there dumbfounded. He was mad at first, but at the same time, sorry for the boys, both of whom were crying like the dickens.
"Why? Why did you do it?" Tony asked, again.
"We were mad," one boy said.
"Mad? You were mad?" Tony asked, anger in his voice. "I almost had to close my cafe. You caused a lot of trouble! I'm the one who should be mad."
It took a while for Tony's temper to cool while embarrassed mothers did a good deal of apologizing. For Tony and Ida the green water crisis was over -- for Plateau Mining, the findings changed nothing. The company's engineers still showed up to design future safeguards for their water supply. Mary, the Health Nurse, left on the next bus south with a tale she would never forget. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The dark clouds moved on, and life returned to normal along that dusty stretch of Alaska Highway. And those two little bored twelve-year olds ... well, the Northern Oriental Cafe had two new dishwashers for the rest of that summer.
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MY SMOKE DON'T STINK by Alan A Sandercott
You know what it's like, when the phone rings in the middle of the night? You pray it's only a dream and that it will stop. But no such luck, as it rings again, and again. Malcolm's wife began to stir and finally fumbled for the phone.
"Hello," she muttered, sleepily. "Just a minute ... who's calling please?"
Their bedroom was in total darkness but Phyllis managed to find her bed lamp. She reached over and prodded Malcolm in the back with the receiver.
"Wake up. It's for you," she said. "It's Burt at the mill."
Burt was Production Manager at Quality Forest Products, a specialty woods sawmill owned by Malcolm.
"Yeah, what is it?" Malcolm asked, sleepily, not bothering to open his eyes.
"Sorry to wake you boss, but we've got problems down here."
"You're not going to believe this, but we've got a group of protesters down here setting up a picket line," Burt explained.
"What?" Malcolm exclaimed.
That was the kind of news that would wake anyone up, especially Malcolm.
"Told 'ya you wouldn't believe it."
"Where are they?"
"Right at the front gate. They've got it totally blocked."
"Are they causing any problems?" Malcolm asked, swinging his feet out of bed and sitting up.
"What is going on?" Phyllis asked, herself now wide-awake.
Malcolm paid her no mind.
"Nope. No problems so far," Burt said. "Mind you, it's still dark out there. I didn't even know they were out there 'till one of the guys spotted them. I came in the south gate so I didn't see anything."
"Is the shift still working?" Malcolm asked.
"What?" Phyllis asked again.
"In a minute," Malcolm said, and then shifted his attention back to Burt. "Can you see what they doing down there?"
"It's hard to see from here, but they have strung a sign across between the post uprights. There's a pickup truck parked across the gate and I can see about ... oh, about four people standing on the other side of the truck. They just seem to be standing there. I was going to walk down there and see but I figured I better phone you first."
"I'll bet it's that damned woman again and her so called environmental group," Malcolm said.
"You may be right. She was madder than hell when she left your office the other day."
"Okay, look. Go down there and find out who they are and what their intentions are, and then call me right back."
Handing the receiver back to his wife, Malcolm rolled back onto the bed. He wished he could just pull the covers over his head and go back to sleep.
"Are you going to tell me what's going on?" Phyllis asked, again.
"Remember the woman who was in the office the other day complaining about the smoke from our bee-hive burner?"
"Well, she's back. It sounds like her and some of her cronies are down at the mill. They're out in front of the gate."
"I don't understand. You mean the woman --"
"That's the one. She's been driving me nuts with her letters and phone calls. She says we're polluting her air. Hell, I breath the air too, and it doesn't bother me."
"Nothing bothers you," Phyllis quipped.
"Well it doesn't. And besides, it's none of her business how we operate. She's not even from around here."
"Then what is she doing here?"
"Stirring up trouble is about all," Malcolm replied. "I don't need her crap."
At fifty-six, Malcolm Ritchie was a no-nonsense, respected businessman in his community. The logging industry was Malcolm's life. He had grown up with the forests for a playpen -- sawdust piles for his sandbox. Just like his father, he lived and breathed logging. Even his grandfather had been in lumber in the old country. Several years earlier, Malcolm had taken over the business from his father and worked long and hard to expand on it. He converted the small sawmill into a specialty woods operation running three shifts. His mill was one of the largest employers in the small northern community of Clearwood.
As a boy, he knew someday he would have his own sawmill. In school he was always in the upper half of his class, with a devotion to sports in which he excelled. He was popular in University where he majored in Forestry, and had his fair share of female admirers. That was where he met and married Phyllis, the daughter of a well to do local businessman. They were raising two sons, both away at university.
A lot had changed from the days when his father wielded both axe and chainsaw in the bush. Malcolm ran his company from his desk and the cab of his company pickup. Phyllis maintained the company books, one of those jobs that started out as a temporary arrangement, and then never seemed to end. Not that she wasn't doing a capable job, but often remarked to Malcolm, "We should really hire a proper bookkeeper for this place."
"You're right," Malcolm would always agree. But he never seemed to get around to it.
Burt called the shift foreman to the office, and together they walked down to the main gates. As they drew near they could begin to read the signs in the dim light.
"It's those protesters all right," Burt said.
"What's their problem?" the foreman asked.
"They want us to shut down our burner, that's all."
"Are you serious?"
"Oh I'm serious all right," Burt said.
"We can't shut the burner down. How would we get rid of all the sawdust and shavings? Not to mention all the slabs. Are they nuts?"
"They claim all the smoke is polluting the valley."
Burt Frazier was a thirty-five year old logger who had almost lost his life as a tree faller. A snag he was falling snapped and sprung back, catching Burt square in the chest. The impact knocked him ass over teacart and landed him in the hospital. Burt had been lucky, the doctors told him. He may well have been crushed to death. As it was he received several broken ribs and a punctured lung. He was off his feet for weeks and never did return to the bush as a faller. During his period of convalescence Malcolm had put Burt to work in the office.
"No sense you sitting around home twiddling your thumbs." Malcolm had said.
After having Burt in the office for six months, Malcolm was so impressed with Burt's smarts that he made him a shift supervisor. Three years later and Burt was overseeing the whole mill as Production Manager. Burt proved to be a natural.
A hush came over the crowd as Burt approached. They had an old pickup truck parked sideways across the entrance to the mill yard, totaling blocking all access. On the other side, a woman carrying a sign reading, "STOP THE POLLUTION", moved towards the gate to meet Burt.
"What's going on?" Burt asked.
She was just a young woman, no more than thirty. She was wearing no makeup, her hair hung in one long braid down her back. She clutched a heavy coat around her to fend off the cool morning chill.
"We represent the 'Coalition Against Wood Smoke'. We're here demonstrating against that," She said, pointing towards the large beehive burner beside the mill.
"I believe the owner has already spoken to you," Burt said.
"Yes, we've talked to Mr. Ritchie," she said. "But that's all he does, is talk. Now we want him to realize that we mean business. We're demanding that you stop polluting our air."
"Your air?" Burt asked.
She didn't answer, but a smile crossed her face as she turned away. She pushed her sign into the air, encouraging her followers to join her chant, "Stop the smoke. Stop the pollution. Stop the smoke. Stop the Pollution..."
"Hey!" Burt called out to the woman. "I think someone's off key."
That only stirred the protesters into chanting all the louder.
"Not exactly your average church choir, are they?" Burt said to his foreman, as they turned and headed back to the office.
After a rushed shower and shave, Malcolm gulped at his coffee. Burt still hadn't called back and Malcolm was becoming anxious.
"Sit," his wife said. "Have some breakfast before you go."
"Not right now. I'm phoning Burt. I want to know what's happening out there."
He quickly phoned his office but all he heard was the phone ringing, over and over.
"There's no answer," he said. "I can't wait any longer."
"Finish your coffee first," Phyllis said. "Don't be so impatient."
"I told him to call me soon he found out anything."
"He will. I'll make you some toast while you wait," Phyllis said.
"No, I better get out to the yard. You never know what they're --" Finally the phone rang. Malcolm, in his haste to answer it, almost knocked over his coffee cup.
"Well, you were right," Burt explained. "It's that same woman that was at your office. She's got six others with her."
"What are they doing?"
"Not much right now, just standing around waving signs."
"Did you talk to her?" Malcolm asked.
"Yep. She says they're staying there until we stop polluting her air."
"That's what she said."
"Nothing. She didn't say anything. They just started waving their signs and singing -- if you can call it that," Burt said.
"Did you tell her to get the hell off the property?"
"They're not on the property. They're right outside the gate."
"Well, don't let 'em in the yard. I'm leaving right now."
"You'll have to use the south road," Burt advised. "They've got the front gate blocked off."
"Not for long."
Malcolm hung up, his mind deep in thought.
"What is it?" Phyllis asked.
"I was right, it's that woman I was telling you about?"
"What does she want now?"
"Same as before. Shut down the burner. Well she can go to hell. I'm going over there right now and --"
"Finish you coffee first. You go getting yourself all worked up and you'll be like a bear the rest of the day."
"She may wish she had met a bear after I get finished with her."
As Malcolm approached the mill yard from a distance he could see the group of protesters milling about the main entrance, so he simply entered by the south road. Then once inside he turned and headed straight for the main gate. Burt, who had been watching from the office window, grabbed his jacket and headed for the gate as well.
"Just what the hell do you think you're pulling off here?" Malcolm yelled out, slamming his truck door and walking the last few feet to the gate.
The woman, who had watched Malcolm enter by the other gate, moved towards the pickup blocking the entrance. The other protesters, having been told who had just driven into the yard, closed in behind to show their support. They still waved their signs, but their chanting was more subdued, their mood more cautious than when Burt had confronted them earlier.
"I want this truck out here right now!" Malcolm said, on reaching the old pickup.
He placed both hands on the hood, as if he were about to push it out of there by himself.
"Mr. Ritchie," the woman said, laying her sign down on top of the hood. "We're here to protest the --"
"I don't care what you're here for," Malcolm interrupted, in a loud voice. "I want you out of here, now!"
"We represent CAWS. And we're here to demonstrate your blatant disregard for the environment."
"Look ... what's your name again?"
"Okay. Look Monica. I told you the other day in my office, I don't intend to shut down my wood waste burner, not for you -- not for anyone."
"And as I explained, Mr. Ritchie, we have a right to clean air."
"And I have the right to operate my business without you sticking you nose into it," Malcolm told her, his voice still high pitched and stern.
"Not when you pollute the air in the process," Monica countered.
"How about the other mills in the valley?" Burt asked. "They're all using bee-hives. You planning in picketing all of them?"
"If we have to," Monica replied.
"I'll tell you what you have to do," Malcolm said. "You get this rusty piece of junk off my road, that's what you have to do."
"We have a perfect right to be here," she said. "This is public property."
"Let me make it a little clearer for you," Malcolm said. "You've got fifteen minutes to move this junk pile or I will move it for you."
To make the point he was serious, Malcolm grabbed Monica's sign and ripped it in half, throwing the pieces to the ground. Fortunately, the old truck was blocking the entrance as the other protesters suddenly reacted, pushing forward, banging on the truck and chanting once more, "Stop the smoke. Stop the Pollution..."
Malcolm and Burt tuned their backs. Walking back to Malcolm's company truck, Burt had to get in one final shot. "They sure are lousy when it comes to carrying a tune, aren't they?"
Burt said it loud enough so the protesters would hear him. He even came close to giving them the finger, but then thought better of it.
"She'll move," Malcolm said, backing up his truck in the direction of the office.
"And if she doesn't?" Burt asked.
Malcolm thought about that one for a second.
"Bring the 950 loader around front. Park it on the road here where they can see it."
"Yeah..." Burt said with a grin. "That should do it."
"It'll give them something to think about for awhile. It's almost seven o'clock and I haven't had my second coffee yet," Malcolm chuckled.
In all the years Malcolm had been in business he had never had so much as a threat of a strike. This was his first dealing with a picket line, even if it wasn't a union out there. He didn't intend to let some bunch of weirdoes tell him how to operate his business.
"Still there," Burt reported after arranging for the loader.
It was almost eight o'clock by then.
"I think I've been more than reasonable, don't you?" Malcolm asked.
"I would say so."
"Okay, here's what I want you to do..."
Malcolm parked his pickup at the edge of the road near the gate. Again they congregated near the old truck as Malcolm approached. Monica stepped forward as leader, only this time, as she was about to lay down her sign, she thought better of it and handed it back through the group. Malcolm couldn't hold back a grin at her action.
"I want this junk heap out of here, now!" Malcolm demanded, pounding on the old pickup's hood with his finger.
"We represent CAWS and we intend to stay here as long as it takes," Monica replied.
"For the last time, move it!"
"We will not be intimidated. We have the right to --"
Malcolm didn't wait for her to finish. He turned and raised his arm in the direction of the office.
Suddenly, the big 950 loader, with its huge ominous set of forks resembling the tusks of some rogue elephant, sprang to life. Black smoke from the exhaust shot into the air as Burt pressed the throttle, again, and again. The engine's deafening roar filled the morning air, dust blew out from under both sides of the loader, as if it were pawing the ground, readying for the charge.
Malcolm turned back in Monica's direction, "Are you going to move it, or do I?"
"You wouldn't dare," she said, defiantly.
Wrong choice of words. Malcolm's arm went up a second time and the beast moved forward.
If it was intimidation the protesters were expecting, the loader filled the bill. The group suddenly became very quiet, slowly backing away from the old truck.
"You can't get away with this," one of the men in the group shouted out.
Malcolm simply ignored the man and stepped aside to get out of Burt's way. The protesters continued their retreat as the big loader neared, lowering its forks to the ground in preparation to sweep its adversary from its path. Then it stopped, inches short of its quarry.
"This is a legal demonstration. You can't do this," Monica warned, as she too backed away.
"You just watch me," Malcolm said, over the engine's roar.
Then he looked up at Burt, and gave him the nod.
What followed was the screech of steel on steel as the forks drove under the old truck. The awesome power of the loader drove the pickup sideways; the rough road surface tore at the sides of the truck's tires, actually ripping one of them from its rim. Then the loader wrenched the old truck into the air like a child's toy.
Burt paused for a moment, the truck held high in the air, as if some sort of triumphant salute, and then he moved ahead. Out past the gate, Burt turned the loader sharply towards the ditch, drove ahead a little farther, and slowly lowered the forks. Then, with a forward tilt of the forks and another grinding screech, he neatly deposited the old pickup high and dry on the far side of the ditch. Within a few short moments, it was over, and the beast withdrew.
The protesters were speechless; surprised that Malcolm had actually gone to such lengths. Malcolm stood and waited as the group huddled, deep in discussions. Then finally Monica emerged.
"We will be back," she told Malcolm.
"Don't bother. You're not welcome here," he said.
"I must advise you that I intend to report this matter to the local police."
"You do what you have to do. Just get the hell out of here."
As Malcolm walked back to his pickup a great chorus of cheers rose from the office area. Unknown to Malcolm at the time, the whole night shift had gathered out front to watch the action. Now they were applauding Malcolm's handling of the situation.
"Now we can get back to work," Malcolm called over to the loader.
Burt was sitting in the loader grinning ear-to-ear, "You bet, boss."
It was after lunch before the police showed up at the mill office. It was Phyllis who noticed the police car sitting down by the gate. "I think we have company," she said.
"Who?" Malcolm asked.
"The police. They're down by the gate."
Malcolm got up from his desk to look for himself.
"Is that the woman from this morning?" Phyllis asked, referring to the woman with the police officer.
They watched from the window, as the office appeared to be listening while Monica described the day's earlier events. From the way she was moving her arms around, Malcolm concluded she was attempting to describe Burt and the loader. He laughed and went back to his desk and stayed there until the police office entered the office.
"Afternoon, Jack," Malcolm said, getting up and walking over to the reception counter.
"Malcolm. Afternoon Phyllis," Jack said, taking his hat off and setting it on the counter. "Sounds like you had a busy morning."
"You might say that," Malcolm replied.
"Would you like to give me your version of all this?"
"Where did you leave what's her name ... Monica?"
"Monica Sayles. She's waiting in the car," Jack explained. "You left her with the impression she was not welcome here."
"Well I'm glad she got my message."
"She claims you pushed her truck into the ditch?"
"That's not true," Malcolm corrected. "We gently set it over there."
"The 950 loader."
"You're kidding?" Jack asked, fighting back a grin. "That would explain the flat tires."
"She was blocking my road and I told her to move it. She didn't, so I moved it for her."
"Well she's filing a complaint against you."
"For what?" Malcolm asked.
"Endangering her life. She claims to have six witnesses."
"That's garbage. She was in no danger at all. She was fifty feet away."
"She also maintains that you interfered with her right to demonstrate. She claims they were peaceable."
"That's garbage too. Besides, what gives her the right to block my road and try shutting down my mill?"
"Whoa, right there," Jack said, holding up both hands. "You're not suckering me into this one. I've already fired off a message to the higher-ups. Let them deal with it."
"No problem, just keep them away from here," Malcolm said.
"All I can do is maintain the peace, that's all."
"Well, you keep them away from here and there won't be any problems."
"Have your lawyer get you an injunction. Then I'll have something to enforce," Jack told him.
Malcolm wasted no time calling his lawyer. If he needed an injunction then that's what he would get.
"That shouldn't be any problem," his lawyer said. "I'll need a statement from yourself and Burt. Give me a list of all those employees who were watching. That should be enough to satisfy a judge."
"How long will it take you?" Malcolm asked.
"If I can do the interviews this afternoon I can take it before a judge in the morning."
"Not till then?"
"It takes time to gather the evidence. I have to show where the protesters are impeding your ability to carry on your business. Then I have to have the injunction signed by a judge, and I can't do that until after ten in the morning. Then you can post it."
"Well what ever it takes. I don't want them back here."
The rest of the afternoon was relatively quiet. By four o'clock Malcolm was ready call it a day.
"What time are you going home?" he asked Phyllis.
"Not for a while, I was late starting today."
"You spend too much time in here," Malcolm said.
"I agree. If you would break down and hire someone to look after the office and do the books, I would be happy to stay home."
"I will," Malcolm told her. "Just as soon as I find somebody capable of replacing you."
"That's what you've been saying for the last year," Phyllis said.
"I know, but you're hard to replace," he chuckled. "Right now I'm heading home."
Phyllis finished off her work and started to lock things up when Burt opened the office door.
"I take it the boss has gone for the day?" he asked.
"Yes, he went home about a half hour ago. I'm just locking up."
"Well, you better call him. Looks like we've got trouble out here."
"What?" she asked.
"See for yourself," Burt said, and motioned towards the window.
As Phyllis and Burt watched from the office window, people were filing off a big bus parked by the main gate. Immediately they started lining up across the gate opening, waving placards they had brought with them. A few others were busy fastening a large banner to the side of the bus. As the banner unfolded, the writing became clear, "COALITION AGAINST WOOD SMOKE".
"You better make that call," Burt told Phyllis. I'll go out front and keep an eye on them."
Malcolm had just stepped out of the shower when the phone rang. Clutching a towel around his waist he reached for the bedroom phone. Needless to say, he was furious when Phyllis told him about the busload of protesters.
"That does it!" he roared. "I'm coming over there and get rid of them, once and for all."
"What are you going to do?" she asked, concerned at Malcolm's outburst.
"I don't know, but I'll think of something," he said. Then hung up.
Phyllis knew that when Malcolm's temper got all worked up like that, he became very irrational. This worried her to the point she immediately called the police and told Jack what was happening.
"How many are there?" Jack asked routinely.
"About fifty-four as best we can count," she replied.
"Oh oh," Jack said, suddenly realizing the potential for trouble. "Did he get the injunction like I suggested?" Jack asked.
"Our lawyer's working on it, but I understand he can't get it signed by a judge until tomorrow morning," Phyllis explained.
"That may be too late. You better call him and make him understand we need it signed now, or my hands are tied."
"Okay. Malcolm's on his way over here now, and you know what his temper is like," she said.
"Don't let him do anything stupid," Jack told her. "I'll be over there as quick as I can. Call that lawyer!"
Malcolm set an all time record in dressing and driving to the yard. When he approached the south road entrance he could see two protesters trying to block it. That simply made Malcolm madder, and he made no attempt to slow down.
"You better get the hell out of my way," he said to himself.
It was almost as if the protesters could sense Malcolm's warning, either that or it was the sight of the pickup truck barreling down on them at full speed; either way they both got out of the way as Malcolm's truck roared by and into the mill yard. This time however, he drove straight to the office.
"What'd she do, bring a whole army?" Malcolm asked Burt, who had come out to meet him.
"There's over fifty of them," Burt said.
"Get that loader around here again," Malcolm ordered.
"I don't know boss," Burt said. "Maybe we should wait a bit. The police are on their way over here."
"Let 'em come. Right now I want that loader out here so they can see I mean business. Better yet, bring both of them around here."
Burt knew better to argue with Malcolm, especially when he was mad.
"I phoned the lawyer," Phyllis advised her husband when he entered the office.
"I told him what was happening out here and what Jack had said."
"Jack? What did he say?"
"He said his hands are tied unless we have the injunction. That's what I told the lawyer. He's going to phone the judge at home to see if he can get it signed."
"Good. Now, where is Jack? I thought he was supposed to be here?" Malcolm asked.
"He said he would be here as soon as he could. I'm sure Jack can ... what are you doing?" she asked suddenly, as she heard one of the big loaders pulling around in front of the office.
"Just getting ready. If Jack can't get rid of them, I will!" Malcolm exclaimed.
Phyllis was beginning to worry about Malcolm. She didn't like to see him like that.
"Why don't you just slow down a bit and take it easy? Your face is getting all red. You're going to have a heart attack if you're not careful," she warned.
"I'm okay," he said, as if trying to reassure her.
"They won't try anything now," Burt told Malcolm outside after he parked the second loader in plain view of the protesters. He climbed down and filled Malcolm in on what had happened since the bus had arrived.
"... The afternoon shift's all in and working," Burt went on. "There's no one coming or going right now so..."
No sooner had he spoken than they could make out the unmistakable sound of a large truck gearing down in the distance.
"You spoke too soon," Malcolm said.
A loaded logging truck was approaching the gate. The driver was still several hundred yards away, but he could see the bus and the people milling around. The protesters heard the truck approaching as well and moved to their positions to block the entrance.
"We better get down there," Malcolm told Burt. "We can take my pickup."
"Where's the cavalry when you need them?" Burt called, referring to the local police.
Both men climbed in the truck and headed for the gate.
"I'll see if I can raise the truck on the radio," Burt said, reaching for Malcolm's two-way radio.
"Tell him to hold up until the police get here," Malcolm said.
At the gate, Malcolm didn't wait for Burt. He jumped out of his pickup and ran towards the gate.
"Are you people crazy?" he yelled.
The protesters were milling around, some with their arms linked together in a human chain, others waving signs at the oncoming truck. All were yelling and chanting at the top of their lungs. They seemed to think it was one big joke.
It was obvious nobody was about to listen to Malcolm. There was little he could do but watch as the truck continued towards the gate, somewhat slower, but nevertheless still moving.
"I couldn't reach him," Burt called out as he caught up to Malcolm. "He's not answering his radio. All we can do is hope he stops."
"I don't know if he's going to stop or not," Malcolm said in a concerned voice. He started waving his arms in the hope the driver might recognize him.
Finally the truck eased to a stop, much closer to the crowd of protesters than Malcolm would have liked.
"Okay, he's stopped," Burt said. "I'll go try him on the radio again."
"Tell him to stay put," Malcolm called after Burt.
It took only seconds for the crowd to close in on the truck. It was stopped, but its engine was still running. From the driver's perspective, all he could see was a mob of people rushing at him. He had no idea what was going on. The way the crowd was yelling and waving their signs at him, the driver could think of nothing but getting the hell out of there. Unfortunately, one doesn't simply back up a fully loaded logging truck. Not knowing what the hell was happening, he reached over and locked both doors.
Malcolm was helpless to do anything. He was too far away, and by then the protesters were jamming their sign's over the windshield, blocking the driver's vision. Others started pounding on the doors and hood with their signs and fists. For the driver, who personally owned the truck, it was all too much, for him the only safe ground lay inside the gate. The logging truck's engine suddenly roared, and the wheels began to turn.
Panic quickly ensued. People scrambled to get away from the front of the truck. Two men jumped up on the running boards of the truck, one on each side. They screamed obscenities at the driver and pounded on the windows. On the passenger side the man used the butt of his signpost to smash the glass. Deliberately, he continued to pound at the glass in an attempt to create a hole large enough to reach inside and unlock the door. Fortunately for the driver, the man's efforts were in vain. At the last moment he had to jump to avoid being crushed against the side of the bus.
The bus was parked out on the road, leaving barely enough room for the front of the truck to squeeze by. The back of the truck, however, was far too wide. The front set of steel bunks that cradled its load of logs, caught the side of the bus near the back. The bus lurched, as if in pain, as the bunks ripped the side of the bus open like a giant can opener. Between the screeching of tearing metal and the screaming of terrified protesters, the scene was one of absolute bedlam.
Then, as fast as it started, it was over. The logging truck pulled clear of the bus, through the gate, and into the safety of the yard. The driver, once he got the rig stopped, just sat at the steering wheel. He was so scared he was shaking.
All holly hell broke loose. The protesters, still shaken and infuriated by what the truck driver had done, started to rush towards the gate. Malcolm, who had jumped up on to the running board of the truck to speak to the driver, rapidly retreated to the area of his pickup, waving his arms to stop the crowd. Burt too, jumped out and moved to Malcolm's side. Now there were two against the fifty odd protesters charging in their direction.
Just like in the westerns, when all seems lost, help comes riding over the hill. Malcolm and Burt's help came in the form of sirens from down the road.
"Thank God, here comes the cavalry," Burt said, turning in the direction of the wailing sound.
"About bloody time," Malcolm added.
Seconds later the two protesters guarding the south entrance abandoned their duties in favour of safer ground. Two police cars, sirens howling, red and blue lights flashing, roared through the south entrance. The would-be guards, sensing the futility of their duty, headed for the main gate. Clouds of dust bellowed up as the two police cars came to a halt at the main gate, right between Malcolm's pickup and the unruly crowd of angry protesters. Both Malcolm and Burt felt a little relieved as four officers jumped from the cars.
It took all four police officers to finally control the crowd.
"I want them off my property," Malcolm called over to Jack, who was trying to get Monica Sayles under control.
"He's right," Jack said to Monica. "You're trespassing. I want you to get your people outside the gate, now!"
"Not until you arrest that driver. He damned near killed some of us," she exclaimed.
"We'll deal with the driver later. Right now I want you to move your people outside the gate. Then, we can talk."
The chaos was far from over. Off to the side a man broke ranks and ran for the logging truck. He jumped to the running board and fought with the driver to get the door open. One of the policemen had to drag the man down off the truck. A scuffle ensued and didn't end until a second officer joined in, handcuffed the man, and placed him in the back of a police car. The driver they placed in the back of the other police car.
"What are you arresting him for?" Malcolm asked Jack.
"He's not under arrest. I just want him in there for his own safety."
Then Phyllis showed up at Malcolm's side.
"You shouldn't be down here!" Malcolm told her sharply.
"Our lawyer's here," she said. "He's in the office. He says we're not paying him enough to come down here. But he has the injunction."
"Good. Now get in my truck. I'll give you a ride up to the office," Malcolm told her. "I don't want you getting hurt."
When Malcolm returned with a copy of the injunction, Jack and his men had already herded the protesters back outside the gate.
"Here it is," Malcolm called out to Jack. He waved the paper so Jack could see it.
"All right," Jack said, once he had read the document over. "I've got to go down there and read this to them."
"Good. Then kick their asses to hell out of here," Malcolm said.
"No. They still have the right to be out there."
"Then what the hell good is the injunction?"
"It specifies very clearly what they can and can't do under the law. They're not allowed to interfere in any way with the normal operation of your business," Jack explained.
"That's what I said." Malcolm cracked a grin. "Kick 'em out of here."
Jack just shook his head, knowing Malcolm was almost joking. "You and Burt wait by the office while I talk with these people," Jack said. "And get someone to move that logging truck out of sight. Leaving it parked there isn't helping things."
The mood of the crowd didn't change much as they mingled around their damaged bus. They had picked up their signs again and were waving them in the air. Some of the protesters taunted Malcolm by yelling their slogans as loud as they could, "Stop the pollution, Stop the smoke, Stop the pollution, Stop the smoke..."
Another man jumped up onto the hood of the bus and held his sign high in the air. It read, "Smoke STINKS!!"
Then he yelled out for Malcolm's benefit, "Why don't you shut down that stinking burner?"
Just as fast Malcolm's temper soared. "MY SMOKE DON'T STINK!" Malcolm yelled back at him, accompanied by Burt who couldn't resist and finally gave them the finger.
Again the crowd surged when faced with Malcolm's words and Burt's show of contempt.
"Give me a break here, Malcolm," Jack yelled back at the two. "I want both you and Burt back at the office, now!"
Back in the office Phyllis was beside herself with worry over the way Malcolm had gotten involved in the ruckus.
"You could have been seriously hurt," she said. "Both of you. All you had to do was wait for the police."
"I can't help it if that damned truck showed up when it did," Malcolm said.
"Where did she get all those people out there, anyway?" Burt asked, back at the window where he could see Jack reading out the injunction.
"I recognized a few of them," Malcolm said. "But most I've never seen before."
"They must have bused them in from other towns," Phyllis said.
"I'd like to see them use that same bus to get 'em out of here," Burt laughed. "Did you see the way those bunks tore that thing wide open? Just like gutting a big fish."
"So, you gave 'em the good word?" Burt asked, as Jack returned the office.
"It's done," Jack said. "They're not too happy about it but this should put an end to it."
"What about my driver?" Malcolm asked. "Are you arresting him?"
"I don't know yet. But I'm going to take him down to the office. He can do up his accident report while he's there. That should give the crowd time to disburse. I'll need statements from both you two as well, but we can do those tomorrow."
"That's good, Malcolm said. "Because soon as they clear out I'm going home and have a big drink."
"There'll probably be a few of the protesters hang around out there for a while," Jack warned. "You'd probably be wise to have someone stay here in the office to keep an eye on them."
"I can stay," Burt offered.
"Well what did she say?" Malcolm asked Jack, referring to Monica Sayles.
"She understands the terms laid out in the injunction. She's obviously seem them before. But there's a few others down there pretty worked up about the truck coming through. They're claiming you ordered the driver to drive through their lines."
"That's Bull!" Burt exclaimed, "I was trying to call him on the radio to get him to stop."
"I know," Jack said, "but they're so wound up right now it's going to take them a while to cool down. Keep an eye on them, if there are any problems, call me right away."
Jack was right as they did cool down. The following day there were six protesters on site for most of the day. Next day there were only three, and the next there were four, but they only hung around for a few hours. Other than a few verbal outbursts as trucks past through the gate, things were pretty much back to normal.
Then, about two weeks later, Malcolm was enjoying a quiet evening at home in front of the TV. Phyllis gently shook his arm to wake him. He had dozed off in his favorite chair shortly after he got home from work. He looked so comfortable that she didn't even have the heart to wake him for dinner. Not even the ringing of the phone disturbed him. She shook him again.
"What?" he asked, his eyes barely open.
"You're wanted on the phone."
Malcolm yawned a huge yawn, pushed down with his feet to bring his recliner chair upright."
"What time is it?"
"Just about ten," Phyllis replied.
He yawned again and looked at his watch. "I guess I dozed off, eh? Who's on the phone?"
"That new afternoon supervisor, what ever his name is," she said, handing him the portable phone.
Phyllis watched as the expression on her husband's face slowly turned from a peaceful contentment to one of anger. He said little but listened and finally with an explosion sat bolt upright.
"I'll be there in a few minutes. You call the police," he said, and hung up.
For a moment he said nothing, just slouched back into his chair. "Damn!" He exclaimed suddenly, and again sat up straight.
"What? What happened?" Phyllis asked.
"Those bastards!" he stormed. "Those dirty ... they just knocked down the conveyor feed to the burner."
"Who else? Obviously the same ones from a couple weeks ago. Well this time they've really done it."
"Just calm down, you don't know --"
"Calm down hell. They weren't happy trying to block my gates, now they're smashing up my equipment."
"Why don't you just call Burt? Let him go down and look after it."
"No, I better get down there. I want to see how much damage there is."
At the mill site, Malcolm stood surveying the damage, his head shaking in disbelief. The police were already there looking around and taking photographs. Even the fire truck was there. When the scaffolding let loose, the feed pipe platform tore loose from the burner and crashed to the ground. With it came a shower of sparks and sawdust that immediately caught fire on the ground.
Malcolm walked around through the tangle of timbers, mangled iron and torn conveyor belting. The mill had shut down right away and the afternoon shift workers were milling around and voicing their concerns over the accident.
"Accident, hell!" Malcolm bellowed, overhearing one of the conversations. "This was sabotaged."
The men, once realizing it was Malcolm Ritchie, quickly busied themselves. Malcolm continued to rant and rave, grasping at timbers and throwing them out of his way.
Phyllis didn't even bother to go to bed. She made herself a cup of tea and waited for Malcolm to return home. Unable to concentrate on her book, she sat half asleep, and half listening to a program on TV. The phone startled her when it rang.
"Phyllis, this is Burt, we're down at the hospital. I think maybe you better come down here."
Phyllis felt a sudden chill. "What's wrong? Is it Malcolm? Is he okay?"
"We don't know yet," Burt told her. "He collapsed at the yard. The doctor thinks he may have had a heart attack."
"Oh my God!" she cried. "Is he going to be okay?"
"We don't know anything yet. The doctor is still in with him right now."
When Phyllis rushed into the emergency room entrance at the hospital, she found Burt and the two ambulance attendants who had brought Malcolm to the hospital.
"How is he?" she asked immediately.
"We still don't know," Burt said. "But one of the nurses said the doctor wants to see you just as soon as you got here."
Phyllis didn't ask where or when, she turned and burst through the swinging doors into the emergency room.
The colour had drained from Phyllis' face when she returned to the waiting room. Burt quickly helped her to a seat.
"He had a heart attack," she explained.
"Is he okay?" Burt asked.
"They won't know for several hours. It'll depend on whether he's got the will power."
"Don't you worry about the boss, he's as strong as an ox. He'll pull through this, you wait and see."
"I hope you're right," she said, reaching up and squeezing Burt's hand. He could see the tears streaming from her eyes.
"Do you want me to drive you home. It may be easier for you --"
"No," she said. "I want to wait here. I want to be here when he wakes up."
"Okay. I'm going to stay around here, too," Burt told her.
The two attendants returned to the ambulance and Burt settled in to wait.
At midnight the doctor came out with a few encouraging words. He arranged for Phyllis to wait in Malcolm's room.
"I'll take a run out to the mill and make sure everything's okay," Burt told her. "Will you have somebody phone me when he wakes up?"
The police were just finishing up when Burt arrived. The afternoon crew had rigged some lights, and the reconstruction of the scaffolding was already underway. Everyone was anxious for news of Malcolm's condition. Burt wished he had better news for them.
"I want the sawmill back on line by tomorrow night," Burt told his afternoon supervisor. "Plus I want you to have a couple men patrol the fences, I don't want any more trouble. The boss is going to have enough on his mind when he wakes up. I don't want him worrying about the mill."
Burt headed over to the office to take care of some of the many problems created with a full twenty-four hour shutdown.
"I'd rather be in the office," Burt said to himself. "I hate those damned hospitals."
Phyllis had pulled her chair up close to Malcolm's hospital bed. He seemed to be resting peacefully. She had cried when she first saw him, tubes coming from his nose and arms, wires running from under the blankets to a myriad of instruments that beeped and flashed tiny lights. She felt so helpless at a time when he needed her.
A nurse popped in to check on Malcolm, as she did about every fifteen to twenty minutes. "Can I get you anything Mrs. Ritchie?" she offered.
"No thanks. I'm fine. Has the doctor said anything yet?"
"No, but your husband is resting fine. All his signs are normal. I'm sure he'll be fine."
Phyllis leaned forward and placed her head on her arms. As tired as she was, she fought off the need to sleep.
For the next several hours Phyllis drifted in and out of sleep. At one point when she awoke she felt the sensation of a hand on the back of her head. She raised her head to see Malcolm's smiling face. Her tears returned as she reached for his hand. Phyllis was unaware of the nurse standing behind her until she spoke.
"He's going to be just fine," the nurse said. "The doctor just left. He didn't want to wake you."
Phyllis looked into Malcolm's eyes. She could tell right off, he was going to be okay.
"You old fool," she said, squeezing his hand. "I told you to take it easy."
Malcolm said nothing, but he did manage a big smile, and then he dozed off again.
"He's going to need a lot of rest," the nurse said.
"And I'm going to make sure he gets it, too," Phyllis said, with a smile.
At seven the doctor dropped in again to check on Malcolm's progress. After listening intently to Malcolm's heart and reading the charts, he turned to Phyllis.
"Now you, Mrs. Ritchie," the doctor said. "Your husband is doing just fine, it's you I'm beginning to worry about. Why don't you go home and get some rest? I'm sure we can keep an eye on him for you."
"I'm okay. I slept a bit during the night."
"Not enough. I don't want you in here, too. The specialist's are going to run Malcolm through a whole battery of test. They'll take most of the morning so I want you to get some sleep."
About three thirty in the afternoon Burt showed up to visit with Malcolm. He found his boss propped up in bed and Phyllis trying to get him to drink something.
"Hi," Burt said. "So how you feeling?"
Malcolm nodded and waved him over.
"He's still a little weak, but the doctor said he's doing fine," Phyllis advised.
"Well he's looking a lot better than the last time I saw him."
Malcolm twisted his head to dislodge the drinking straw his wife kept sticking in his mouth.
"I'd be a lot better if she'd stop torturing me," Malcolm said, his voice still a little subdued and scratchy.
"You have to drink," she told him. "Your throat is so dry."
"I'm okay," Malcolm said. "It's just so hot in here. They must have the furnace going full blast."
Burt walked over and stood at the foot of the bed. He felt a little uneasy, what with him not liking hospitals. He was surprised to see only one other patient in the room. The two remaining beds were all neatly made up, waiting their turn. He couldn't see who was in the other bed as there was a curtain pulled around it. He did notice, though, that both windows were closed.
"Hey boss, want me to open a window for you?"
"Please," Malcolm said. "Get some fresh air in here."
"What happened last night?" Malcolm asked, after Burt had opened one of the windows.
"Not sure, one moment you were talking with some of the men, and then apparently you just dropped. When I got there they were loading you in the ambulance. I think they broke every speed limit in the book getting you in here."
"All I remember is a sharp pain in my chest. Christ, it felt like a truck was parked on me. I don't mind telling you, I was scared."
"Well you sure scared the hell out of me, that's for sure," Burt said.
"And me," Phyllis added.
"I think I remember the ambulance. I remember flashing red lights anyway. I know somebody was calling out my name, but..."
"That was one of the ambulance guys," Burt said. "He was trying to keep you conscious until we got to the hospital."
"Next thing I knew I was in this bed. The doctor was here, and the wife had her head down right there, sleeping like a log. That's when he told me about the heart attack."
"So how long you going to have to stay in here?" Burt asked.
"Not long I hope. The bed's lumpy, the food's terrible, it's too hot in here, I can't --"
"Sounds like another happy customer," a nurse said, on entering the room. "You can always tell when a patient is feeling better; by the complaints."
"And, I was about to say, the nurses are great," Malcolm added.
"Are we in your way?" Phyllis asked.
"No, you're fine. I'm just checking on Rodger," she said, pointing to the patient behind the curtain.
"How's things at the yard?" Malcolm asked.
"Don't start worrying about that darn sawmill," Phyllis said.
"You don't have to worry," Burt said. "The mill is doing just fine. We'll be back on regular shift this afternoon."
"You got the burner going already?" Malcolm asked, rather surprised.
"Good as new."
"We better hire some guards," Malcolm said.
"Already taken care of. Everything's under control. All you have to do is lay back and get better."
Right on schedule, according to Burt's instructions, the conveyor system to the burner was operational. When the afternoon shift showed up for work the mill kicked into full gear again. All was back to normal except for a company truck parked at each gate. The evening guard was posted.
During the night Malcolm woke to the sounds of crying. He no idea what time it was, but it was still dark outside. He raised his head and looked in the direction of the sounds. They were coming from the young boy in the other bed. At first Malcolm just figured he was scared of the dark, or perhaps a little homesick. Then he heard what sounded like small gasps, as if the boy was having trouble breathing. At any rate Malcolm didn't like the sounds of it so he rang the buzzer for the
nurse. When she appeared he pointed her to the boy and within a minute or so she had the boy quieted down.
Malcolm made a remarkable recovery. By day three he was chomping at the bit to get back to work. His doctor, on the other hand, was determined to keep Malcolm in the hospital until he had fully regained his strength. The nurses were having a difficult time keeping Malcolm in his bed.
"I can't stay in bed all day," he told them. "It's not natural. And besides, it's too damn hot in here.
Every time Malcolm opened the windows, one of the nurses would close them again.
"Ah come on," he told one nurse when she went to close a window he had just opened. "I need some fresh air."
"We can't," she explained. "Rodger is far too sensitive to the air outside."
"I should think a little fresh air would be good for him."
"Not with his condition," she said.
"What's wrong with him?" Malcolm asked, quietly.
"He's an asthmatic. Right now he's having a lot of allergy problems."
"Poor little guy, I heard him last night. I thought he was choking or something. He actually scared me so much I had to call a nurse for him."
"Would you mind if I pulled his curtain open? I think he's a little lonely," she asked.
"No, of course not. It gets a little lonely in here for me, too."
That was the beginning of a great new friendship between Malcolm and young Rodger Evans. By the time Phyllis dropped in for her afternoon visit, Rodger had already taught Malcolm how to play Snakes and Ladders.
"He's pretty good too," Malcolm told his wife.
"I can't imagine you playing games," she said.
"Well we did, didn't we Rodger?" Malcolm asked, calling over to the boy.
"Sure," young Rodger said, a big smile on his face.
A few minutes later Burt walked in with two armloads of flowers.
"One from the yard and one from the wife and I," he said, looking for a place to set them down.
"Here, give them to me," Phyllis said. "I'll see if I can get a couple of vases from the nurse's station."
"Thanks, Burt," Malcolm said. "That's real nice of you. And thank the men too."
"Well since you can't open the windows, we thought these would make the place smell like a garden for you. How you feeling today?"
"Fine. Hell of a thing eh? I have a heart attack and I can't even claim compensation," Malcolm laughed.
Hearing that, Burt knew his boss was definitely feeling better.
Then when Phyllis told Burt about Malcolm playing Snakes and Ladders.
"You must really be feeling better," Burt said.
"I am. I keep telling the sawbones to let me get back to work, but he --"
"You're staying right here," Phyllis cut in. "Burt's quite capable of looking after things."
"That's right," Burt said. "You just take it easy. Snakes and Ladders, eh?"
"You want to play a game?" Rodger suddenly asked Burt.
Burt wasn't quite sure what to say.
"Go ahead," Malcolm said. "But you better watch out, Rodger's pretty good."
In the next few days young Rodger took great pleasure in teaching Malcolm the finer techniques of playing snakes and ladders. For Malcolm, it brought back memories of his own boys so many years earlier. The lad may have had allergies, but they didn't seem to bother his eating, as he was never able to get enough to eat. Malcolm helped by always passing over his dessert.
Rodger appeared like a normal seven year old, except for his asthma attacks. Malcolm was panicked stricken when he witnessed the first of the boy's asthmatic attacks. One minute the boy was fine and the next he was fighting to breath. It scared the hell out of Malcolm and he was forever summoning nurses. One time when there was no response to the buzzer he was pressing, Malcolm climbed out of bed and went tearing down the halls, yelling his head off. It took two nurses several minutes to get the boy's breathing back to normal. It took them even longer to get Malcolm settled down. He later told Phyllis about the experience.
Then came Malcolm's first meeting with Rodger's father. He was flipping the pages of his newspaper while laying on his bed reading. Normally when Rodger's folks came to visit the curtain was pulled. He wouldn't listen deliberately, but Malcolm couldn't help overhearing their talks with the boy. This particular day the curtain was open. His father was sitting on the edge of Rodger's bed and from the sounds of it; he was trying to explain to Rodger why they had to move to another town. Seemed the more he talked, the more Rodger cried.
Malcolm was happy to see Phyllis show up for her afternoon visit. He quickly grabbed his housecoat and suggested they go out on the deck. He wanted to give Rodger and his folks a little privacy, but deep down, he was really feeling sorry for the little guy. Out on the deck Malcolm settled into one of the comfortable chairs, soaking in the sunshine, something he hadn't done in years.
"Has the doctor said when you can come home?" she asked.
"I asked him again this morning. All he said was, 'I'll see, maybe Saturday'."
"That's all he ever says. I can't get a straight answer of him. All I know is I have to get out of here. I'm beginning to get used to the food, and that scares me."
"May we talk for a moment?" a voice asked.
Malcolm opened his eyes to see Rodger's father standing there.
"Of course," Malcolm said, sitting up.
"You're Malcolm, right? My name is Ian Evans. I'm Rodger's father." "Yes, I know, I've seen you ... Ah, this is my wife, Phyllis. We're pleased to meet you. That's quite a boy you have there."
"Yes he is. I understand he's been teaching you how to play Snakes and Ladders? I hope he's not being a bother?" Ian asked.
"No, of course not. I enjoy his company."
"We appreciate your spending time with him like that. We get in as often as we can."
"Oh I don't mind at all. Did I hear you say that you were moving? I don't mean to pry..."
"That's okay. We just finished telling Rodger, and as you saw, he's pretty upset about the idea. But we don't have much choice. Rodger's new medications are just too expensive, what with me being out of work and all. The doctor's feel it would be best to get him out of the valley."
"Why is that?" Phyllis asked.
"His asthma. He's very sensitive to all the crap in the air. Most mornings the smoke from the mill is so bad he has to stay indoors. He's already missed way too much school."
"Ah, that is a shame," Phyllis said.
"Yes, this is his first year in school, too. He started out good, but now with having to stay home in the mornings, he's falling behind his friends."
"That must be hard on him."
"It is. And we don't want to move either but I've been offered a good job. It pays well so I can't afford to turn it down," Ian said.
"A man needs to work," Malcolm said. "What do you do, Ian?"
"Bookkeeping. I'm an accountant."
"That's important work," Phyllis said, glancing over at her husband.
"I like to think so," Ian said, "and besides, with Rodger's condition getting worse. I don't see where we have much choice."
"I don't understand," Malcolm said. "Why is Rodger only missing the mornings?"
"Well you've probably noticed. Most mornings the smoke lays right in the valley, and by noon it seems to clear away. When it does we let him attend school in the afternoons, but it not enough. Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for keeping Rodger company. He thinks the world of you."
The doctor kept his word. Two days later, on Saturday, Malcolm was finally discharged and allowed to go home.
"I want you to take things easy," the doctor told Malcolm.
"I will, don't worry. I don't particularly want another heart attack, not if I have to eat more hospital food."
"Well then take things easy. That means no work!"
"Surely just dropping into the office --"
"No!" the doctor said firmly. "You need to rebuild your strength. Go for walks. Go fishing. But don't go to work. I've already spoken to Phyllis and she'll tell me if try sneaking off to the office."
"And I will too," she said, with a grin.
It was another one of those sunny afternoons, and waiting to say good-bye was Rodger. It was the first time Malcolm had seen the boy outside since he'd been there.
"Looks like you are going to have to find another partner for Snakes and Ladders," Malcolm said.
"The nurse wants me to teach her to play," Rodger said.
Malcolm looked across the skyline and then back at Rodger. "Nice afternoon, eh?"
"Yeah," the boy beamed. "No smoke."
For the remainder of the week Malcolm sat around the house, bored stiff. Each morning he would walk for several blocks to get his exercise. Those mornings when the smoke hung low in the valley, Malcolm was reminded of his little friend in the hospital. In the afternoons when Phyllis went to the office, Burt would often drop over to the house to visit. It was on such an afternoon that Malcolm got down to business. "I want to make some changes," Malcolm explained to Burt. "Here's what I want you to do...."
For the next two hours Malcolm outlined his plans while Burt took notes. After Burt left, long before Phyllis was expected, Malcolm poured himself a drink and settled into a lawn chair in the back yard. There he relaxed, listening to the birds in nearby trees, and enjoying the smells of Phyllis' flower garden.
The local newspaper publisher, a good friend of Malcolm's, was enjoying a cup of coffee with Phyllis the next morning when Malcolm returned from his walk.
"Good morning, Tom," Malcolm said. "It's going to be a beautiful day. Fresh air. Good day to be alive."
"Fresh air is right," Tom said. "I noticed on my way to work this morning that there was no smoke coming from your bee-hive burner."
"Not any more," Malcolm replied. "I'm making a few little changes."
"I stopped and had a chat with Burt Frazier this morning. He said you're going to start shipping out all the waste products?"
"And when did you decide this?" Phyllis asked.
"A little friend of mine convinced me."
"What about the slabs? I thought you couldn't --"
"Burt's arranging to purchase a chipper. We're going to grind 'em up and sell 'em."
"You're serious?" Tom asked, whipping out his notepad. "You're really shutting down the bee-hive burner?"
"That's right," Malcolm confirmed, and smiled up at Phyllis. "How about getting another coffee for Tom?"
Phyllis had a puzzled look on her face when she came back with the coffee pot. Tom was busily writing away in his notepad.
"I can plainly see I should be staying home in the afternoons to keep an eye on you," Phyllis said to Malcolm.
"You were supposed to resting. Sounds to me like you've been working."
"You didn't see me at the office, did you?"
"No, but I didn't see Burt there either, come to think of it," she remarked.
"How are these changes at the mill going to affect your business?" Tom asked. "Will you be laying off any employees?"
"No. We may even be hiring a few," Malcolm said. "You'd have to ask Burt about that. He's going to be running things for a while."
"What are you going to be doing?" Tom asked.
"Well, I'm thinking about taking up flower gardening. Maybe taking a little vacation."
"I would love to take a vacation," Phyllis said. "But who's going to look after the office? Burt can't handle the bookwork."
"Our new bookkeeper," Malcolm replied with a grin.
"But who?" she asked again, taken by surprise after so many years of Malcolm's promises to hire someone.
"Ian Evans. You met him the other day at the hospital. Burt hired him last night. I was keeping it a surprise."
"I met Ian this morning at the office," Tom added. "He seems like a nice chap."
"He is. Phyllis, you're going to have to spend some time with Ian to get him started."
"My, you have been busy," Phyllis remarked.
Tom put down his coffee and prepared to write. "Now, how much did the big protest have to do with your decision?"
"You sure? I need another good local story."
"I'm sure," Malcolm said. "Listen, if you want a real story with a lot more interest, go over to the hospital and interview Rodger Evans."
"Who's he?" Tom asked.
"He's the one who convinced me to make the changes. An if you're real lucky, he might even show you how to play Snakes and Ladders."
Return to Top
A FACE IN THE RAIN by Alan A Sandercott
A massive bolt of lightning seared across dark stormy skies, and for an instant the city was flooded in blinding light; the intensity of a thousand photographer's flash bulbs. Darkness returned, only to be followed a few seconds later by a horrendous clap of thunder, crashing overhead, shaking buildings with the power of an earthquake, and then rumbling off across the sky. The storm, according to the radio, was one of the worst in the city's history; definitely not a night for Kevin Gray to be driving his car. He was beginning to wish he had gone home at quitting time like everyone else at the office.
Earlier, Kevin had remained at the office to finish off some papers for an important meeting the following morning. He had almost finished when, after a bright flash of lightning, the power failed. He watched from his office window as the city plunged into complete darkness. The sense of nothingness outside his window left him with a weird, sort of chilling feeling, such that he had never experienced before. Not sure what to do, he remained standing by the window.
Then, right on cue, the emergency lighting flashed on, casting their thin eerie rays of light through the darkened office. Kevin looked down, where far below on the streets the only illumination came from vehicle headlights. He found himself listening intently to something he had never heard from his office before; the actual sounds of street traffic. He didn't know why but he was fascinated, and remained transfixed on the storm raging outside.
Kevin was thirty-two years old, well educated, and a junior manager in a large real estate firm. His rise in management had been achieved through plain old hard work, lots of work, resulting in an excellent sales achievement record. He had worked night and day for years without regard to health or family -- unfortunately, he paid a steep price for his success; his wife Peg had left him a year earlier, taking their only daughter with her. Kevin was devastated by the loss of his family, and dealt with it the only way he knew how, he buried himself even deeper in his work. He had put his career above all else. For that, he was the youngest and most successful of the firm's managers -- he was also the unhappiest.
"Ah, to hell with it," he said, finally accepting the fact that the power would not come on any time soon. There was no way he would be able to finish up without his computer. His report would have to wait until morning, and besides, he suddenly remembered his dog was home alone and probably terrified of the storm.
Normally a quiet and mild mannered man, by the time Kevin walked down eighteen flights of stairs, pried open an automatic door and cranked up the parking lot security gate by hand, his temper was flaring. Now on his way home, the pounding rain and howling winds did little to quell Kevin's temper. To make matters worse, he could barely see the street for the rain. His windshield wipers
flip-flopped back and forth in a losing battle to keep the glass clear. Each time lightning flashed across the sky, Kevin saw the obscure shadows of people huddled in building doorways to escape the storm's fury. "Driving in this stuff is bad enough," Kevin grumbled, "but walking must be a hell of a lot worse."
Thanks to the power failure, the traffic lights were out; especially the one he swore was deliberately programmed to turn red anytime Kevin approached. Now he almost missed his turn onto 32nd street. "Damn!" he cursed loudly and hit the brakes, spinning madly on the steering wheel. His tires lost traction on the rain soaked street, causing the rear of his car to slide radically out of control and propelling him into a circular spin. To counter the spinout, he cranked the steering wheel the other way and hit the accelerator. His car swerved violently, negating its slide across the intersection, and then with renewed traction, it lunged forward.
Kevin barely recovered when one of those obscure figures from the doorways suddenly loomed before his car. He saw the frightened face of an old man captured in the headlight's glare. The man appeared frozen in his tracks; his sad eyes expressed shock at the blinding encroachment. A surprised Kevin instinctively slammed on the brakes, but his speed was too great, the road surface too slippery. "Where in hell did you come from?" Kevin cried out. In his mind, he cursed what he considered was, 'some drunken bum stumbling around on the streets, instead of being in the back alleys where you belonged.'
Through his water streaked windshield Kevin saw an obvious fear in the old man's face, terror building in the tired eyes. It all happened so fast ... the inevitable, which came with the unmistakable thud of impact. Kevin could only watch as, like a blade of grass before a lawnmower, the old man was plowed down and disappeared beneath the car.
Few conscious thoughts crossed Kevin's mind as his car slid into the curb and came to a stop. He sat for several seconds, oblivious to everything around him until, finally, the rain pounding on the car roof tugged him back to reality. He was sitting with his white knuckled hands clamped tightly to the steering wheel, his eyes closed. His first thought was of his frightened dog at home; his second was that when he opened his eyes, he would be home in bed awakening from a bad dream; he was not. He slammed the palm of his hand hard against the steering wheel, cursing the old man again.
As he stepped out into the rain he tugged at the collar of his overcoat for protection. With the exception of the odd car passing by the intersection, the street was in total darkness. 'Thank God,' he thought, realizing there was little chance of witnesses. Cautiously, he worked his way to the rear of his car where the taillights cast an eerie red glow into the night, a haunting reminder of what just happened. Rain-washed down over his face, almost blinding him as he squinted through the watery darkness for the old man's body, but he could see nothing. "Now where did you go?" Kevin asked aloud, as if half expecting the old man to answer. He suddenly wondered if his derelict had somehow avoided the impact, or was perhaps brushed aside, then ran back into the alleys for protection. "Yeah, go!" Kevin yelled aloud. 'Back where you belong,' he thought, 'serves you bloody well right.' He turned to retrace the few steps to his car door.
Another blinding bolt of lightning lashed the sky and in those brief seconds Kevin saw something that started his heart racing once more. Laying on the street behind his car, just beyond the glow of his taillights, was the old man's body. At first it looked like a heap of discarded clothing or something, but there was little doubt in Kevin's mind.
Bathed in dark again, it took a minute for Kevin's eyes to adjust to the darkness. All the while he wished the old man would jump up and stagger off, but it was not to be. It took all Kevin's nerve to edge closer and stand peering down at the crumpled body, its one leg bent off at a grotesque angle. The age-withered face, lined by hard life, now lay still against the cold pavement, eyes closed. He looked so ... dead. Kevin felt a cold icy shiver run down his spine. "Oh boy! I hope to Christ he's not dead."
That old man had led a tough life. He didn't choose to be out in that weather, or in that intersection. He was a product of the times: he left a trail of jobs; then no job; then welfare, and a trail of soup kitchens and flop houses. He had struggled desperately, every day, just to stay alive in a society that had discarded him. Now, his struggle ended, he lay face down on the cold wet streets that had become his only home.
Hesitantly, Kevin knelt down beside the old man and, raising a lifeless arm, he felt for a pulse. Nothing. Nor was there any movement from the man's chest; he was dead. "Shit!" Kevin exclaimed aloud, and started shaking the old man in a futile attempt to wake him. Still no response. Furious and confused, he stared off into the darkness. "Now what the hell am I supposed to do?" When he finally dropped the lifeless arm, it straightened out in his direction, a forefinger pointing accusingly. That really spooked Kevin. Startled, he jumped back, staring at the hand for a second, and then retreated to the safety of his car.
The normal thing would have been to report the incident to the police. Only in Kevin's mind, nothing about it was normal. "It was an accident," he told himself. "It wasn't my fault. The old bugger shouldn't have been out there in the first place." Then he thought of his employer, and what might happen to his job when they found out. Wouldn't that be a sweet mess? "I can't do it," he said suddenly. "I can't get involved in this mess. What I've got to do is get the hell out of here."
The rain continued its cruel assault as he drove off into the darkness. There were few other cars on the street, and as each passed, he imagined the glare of their headlights, as being the last thing the old man must have seen. In spite of the rain, he rolled down his window to flush the images from his mind. When that failed, he leaned forward and bumped his head on the steering wheel, over and over. "This is crazy," he muttered. "I'm not going to wreck my life because of some bum. Hell, I probably did the city a favour. Nobody's going to miss him, that's for sure." It was a mind game, but it certainly helped to flush away what little feelings of guilt he may have had.
With the next flash of lightning, followed by the inevitable rumble of thunder, Kevin's mind returned to his dog. The image of the animal curled up under a table, scared stiff, prompted Kevin to lean on the accelerator. "Poor old pup," he said, "hang in there girl. I'll be home soon."
When a car pulled up close behind him, Kevin cursed its driver. Glaring lights from his rear-view mirror blinded him, so much so that he failed to see the tell tail signs until too late. Red and blue lights suddenly flashed from the police car behind him. Now it was Kevin's moment of panic. For the life of him, he failed to see how the police could have found him so quickly. "Someone must have seen the accident," he rationalized to himself. "They must have called the police. Or maybe the police...?" It really didn't matter. What did matter, was how he was going to explain leaving the scene of an accident. "Damn. Damn. Damn!" he exclaimed over and over, staring at the flashing lights in his rearview mirror. "Okay, 'Plan B'. I'll tell them I was going to call as soon as I got home. The power was out. I didn't see any phones around. That's it!" He was shaking. The thought of going to jail scared the hell out of him. "I have to be convincing." He drew a long breath trying to calm his nerves.
The police car was still close behind. Kevin knew he had only seconds before he would be forced to stop. "... Honest officer, I was going to call the police just as soon as I got home," he rehearsed, as he watched the mirror. Then, no longer able to stand the suspense, he muttered, "Let's do it," and started slowing down as he pulled towards the curb. Regardless of his ill-conceived confidence, he felt his heart begin to pound as the police car drew along side. The police officer stared at Kevin for several agonizing seconds. At that moment all Kevin could think of was what he would look like shackled in handcuffs. Would they look after his dog?
Then, to Kevin's amazement, the police car sped up, passing him and roaring off into the darkness, flashing lights and all. He had not been the subject of the police chase after all. He only stopped long enough to regain his composure. "That was too damned close," he said, coupled with a huge sigh of relief. As he pulled back onto the road a smile came over his face and he glanced up at himself in the rearview mirror, "Scrap Plan B". Now nothing stood between him and the safety of home, nothing but time and distance, which he sped to conquer.
Later, as Kevin neared home, he approached another familiar landmark. Out of the darkness loomed a railroad crossing, complete with flashing red warning lights. Momentarily confused, first by lights in a power outage, and more importantly by the oncoming train, he remembered that he was much later than normal. That meant it was a coal train, a long, long coal train. The ones that took forever to pass. "I don't have time for this." He was tired and simply wanted to get home. Racing trains was not something Kevin normally did, but intent on reaching the crossing first, he pressed the accelerator pedal to the floor. Only two blocks to go.
There was no accurate way for him to estimate the train's speed, although he was sure he would arrive at the crossing first. As he neared the crossing he also neared the illumination path of the engine's huge lights. So intense was the light's glare, that he could barely see the road ahead, but he charged onward. One block to go.
It wasn't until a blast from the engine's powerful horns pierced the night air that Kevin realized it was way too dangerous to continue. He was now less than half a block from the railway crossing, and so was the train. "Shit!" he exclaimed, conceding victory and hitting the brakes. But there was no gripping the rain soaked pavement. He may as well have been on a frozen lake as his car slid helplessly out of control towards the crossing.
Again, Kevin heard the scream of air horns. He panicked, pumping frantically on the brakes, but nothing happened. In sheer desperation he tried turning to avoid the oncoming train, but the wheels didn't turn, and the car held its deadly course. His heart pounded so hard it near exploded from his chest. Terrified, he pushed back in his seat and raised his arms to protect himself from the blinding lights, and for a fraction of a second he heard his own scream.
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