CLARENCE BUDINGTON KELLAND
The American Legion Magazine May 1945
SERGEANT MATT WILEY, his left chest blazing with ribbons, stepped off the train in Newtown to find his family affairs in a mess. He still limped slightly owing to an expression of Japanese esteem received over Leyte, and had looked forward eagerly to thirty days of rest and peace and quiet with his father and mother, but found nothing but illness and distress, worry and financial disaster.
"Oh, Mike," his mother said at the train, "I'm so glad you're home. So glad. But I don't know what you can do."
Mike grinned. "What," he asked, "have I got to do? Out where I come from we get our orders, ask no questions, and bring home the bacon."
"Your father is sick—more worry than physical illness. He's going to lose the mill and everything he's given his life to build up. Not his fault, Mike. Not lack of attention to business, nor mishandling of his affairs."
"What then?" Mike wanted to know.
"It's that Parker man who came in here two years ago and bought the old Woodenware Plant. He has war contracts. He has enlarged the mills, built houses for his employees and has grown until he runs the town and the bank and the people and everything in the county."
"But how does that hurt Dad?"
"Parker wants to put him out of business. He wants our timber. He wants complete control of all the timber within reach. He wants no other employer of labor here. He offered to buy your father out, but you know father. He wouldn't sell. There's a note for $12,000 at the bank, and it will be due in two weeks. Things have happened at the mill. Machinery has broken down. Unnecessary labor troubles. Trains of logs running off the track. All sorts of accidents.
"Strictly business," she said tersely, to his amazed whistle.
Then there's the contract. Another worry."
"Your father made an agreement to deliver a huge order of veneer to the Worthington company. By a certain date. There was money in it, enough to save him and pull him through. But he hasn't been able to keep up his deliveries. They are threatening to cancel if he fails to make full delivery by March first. He never can do it, and that will be the end. Bankruptcy."
Mike rode home with his mother and sat for an hour at his father's bedside. His father was listless, hopeless, though pride did light his dull eyes for a moment when they rested upon the tall form and broad shoulders of his son. Mike patted his shoulder.
"Guess I better run down to the mill," he said, "and do a spot of reconnaissance."
"Too late, son," his father said, and closed his eyes. "Nothing to be done now."
"They tell us different in the Army," Mike said. "It looked as if we got a knockout punch at Pearl Harbor. But we've done pretty well since. Maybe we're licked, but if we can keep the enemy from finding it out we may be able to hit him a wallop where it will hurt and turn the tide."
Mike walked down to the mill and climbed the stairs to the office. He walked past the enclosure where the bookkeepers worked and into his father's room. A girl sat at a small desk across from his father's big one. She had a mop of brown hair and a large mouth and brown eyes, and at first you thought she was not a desirable dish. That was because you could not see all of her and because she was frowning.
"Who," asked Mike, "is the head man around here?"
"We're fresh out of head men," she said tartly. "Where are you feeling pain?"
"Somebody must be running the she said.
"What running it's getting," she answered, "I'm giving it. And I'm busy. What's your business besides being a hero? Come to the point and scram."
He walked over to his father's desk and sat down, then he grinned at her and when he grinned it did something to you.
"There's a head man now," he said. "Name of Mike Wiley. Turret gunner of a B-29. Home to enjoy a furlough. Start helping me enjoy it. What's your name on the payroll?"
"Esther Jenks," she snapped. "What makes you think you can cut up capers."
He grinned again. "Got to prove a point. Got to show the nation a soldier can drop into civilian life with a bang and work the combination. D-day has arrived. LaFayette, we are here. Let's commence."
"Modest!" said Miss Jenks.
"You're the intelligence department," he said. "Come through with information."
"You mean you're really going to tackle this mess?"
"On the surface, under the surface and in the air," he said.
She talked, succinctly, colloquially, intelligently. In half an hour he knew the facts, knew what he was up against, what resources the enemy had against him, and what he himself had to repel and make counter attack.
"Now maps," he said, and for another half hour they studied detailed maps of the county showing roads, farms, timber limits, logging roads, railroads.
"You can plan," she said, "till you choke. But what we need is a sackful of jack."
"Lady," he said, "you are now looking at the champion crap shooter of the Pacific area. I came home heavy. When I say 'come seven' it comes. To look at me you wouldn't believe I was a malefactor of great wealth with eighteen hundred and seventy-six of Uncle Sam's bucks bulging in my wallet."
"It might as well," she said, "be a dime. I'm talking about important cash."
"Did you ever hear," he said, "that a dozen men, dropped on the right spot, can muss up the communications of a Division?"
She stood up and stretched. He changed his ideas about her. Maybe she was a bit eccentric as to features, but when it came to figure she could compete for the pin-up championship.
She lifted one brow and lowered the other.
"Strictly business," she said tersely.
Mike continued to pore over the maps with special reference to his father's timber holdings and the more extensive properties that had been acquired by Parker. He studied them, not as a businessman, but as a soldier memorizing the terrain upon which a battle was to be fought. He was thinking, not in terms of timber but in terms of strategy.
"You say Parker has bought that Maddox town of timber?" he asked, pointing to the map.
"A month ago."
With earnest finger he traced the road from the Maddox timber to Parker's mills. "He'll have to bring it out this way, down to the valley. Crossing the river here. That's an old covered bridge, as I remember. No other possible way of getting out his logs."
"You know the country—I don't," said Miss Jenks."
"Let's go see, if the business can scramble along without you for a couple of hours."
They drove out of town to the westward and into the hills. The road followed the river, becoming rougher and rougher as it mounted. Ten miles out of town the little-used thoroughfare descended again to the river and then crossed a narrow, rocky gorge on a dilapidated wooden bridge.
"What you might call a bottleneck," said the sergeant.
"So what?" asked Miss Jenks.
"So," said Mike, "I'm going to call on this man Parker."
"He'll toss you out," she said.
"I hope so. You establish an advanced dressing station with bandages and splints and plasma to pick up the pieces, if it gets that bad."
They drove back toward town and up to the huge Parker mills. Mike left Miss Jenks in the car and entered the office, where he asked for Mr. Parker, giving his name. Presently the clerk returned with word that Mr. Parker would see him and he entered a room to see a large man with reddish hair touched with white sitting behind a desk. Parker looked up at Mike under heavy brows.
"Well?" he asked arrogantly.
"I'm Mike Wiley."
"What of it?" Parker asked.
"Just got home for a furlough." Mike said. "I find you're bearing down on Dad. So I thought I'd come in and talk it over."
"Nothing to discuss," Parker said shortly. "If your father can't manage his business affairs that's too bad—for him."
Mike was very mild. "You're a competitor. You have a right to compete. But, Mr. Parker, there's such a thing as fair competition and unfair competition. All I'm asking of you, sir, is to fight fair."
"If your father doesn't like the way I fight it's his privilege to fight back the same way," Parker said. "I protect myself. Let him do the same."
"I don't believe," Mike said slowly, "that Dad can fight your way. I think he would rather be licked and go into bankruptcy than to win on a foul. He's been here a good many years, Mr. Parker, and he's been fair and aboveboard. He has a reputation among his neighbors, and with his employees."
Mike grinned. "I don't believe he would know how to fight your way, and I'm rather proud of it."
Parker's lip twisted. "Why did you come here? What do you want?" he asked.
"I came," Mike said, "to suggest that you stick to fair business methods. If you can win out that way nobody will have a kick. Just play according to the rules."
Parker leaned forward. "Sergeant," he said, "your father's business is a nuisance to me. I don't want it here in the valley. I'm going to put him out of business."
"And no holds barred?" asked Mike.
"You get the general idea," Parker said.
"This is your final answer?"
"Positive and final," Parker said.
Mike got to his feet. His face was discouraged. He sighed as if he realized himself beaten, and turned to the door. Parker smiled sardonically and shrugged his big shoulders.
For a week Mike scarcely went near the mill. He seemed to spend most of his time visiting about among old friends of his father's, and a great many of those friends chanced to be in and about the old, white-painted courthouse on the hill.
When he did call at the office Miss Jenks received him with increasing unfriendliness. "I never," she said, "could like a quitter."
"They may have their good points," Mike said.
She flared out at him. "Here you come back to town and find your family in a jam. Come back wearing a uniform and a lot of pretty colored ribbons. And what do you do to live up to them? You go around town swapping stories with a lot of old mossbacks. Do you know that note at the bank is due in a week? Do you know we'll have to shut up shop."
She flashed her eyes at him. "If you're a sample of the Air Corps, then God help America."
Another five days passed. On the morning of the sixth day Mike came again to the office.
"Want to go calling with me?" he asked.
"I don't want to be seen with you," she said furiously.
"We'll go by back streets so nobody will notice you," he said. "Roll up that map of the county. We're going to need it." ✋
He leaned over her desk. "I'm the boss, you know. Orders."
She snatched the map from the wall and followed him with sullen face. In silence they drove to Parker's office, where Parker sent out word he was too busy to see them. Mike spoke firmly to the clerk.
"Go in," he said, "and tell that big lug that I want to see him now. Tell him to open the door and let me in or I'll go in and bring the door with me."
The clerk scurried away and returned, followed by Parker, whose broad face was distorted with rage. "Come in here making threats, eh?" he bellowed. "Well, uniform or no uniform, here's where you go out on your ear."
Mike held up his hand, palm out. "Mister," he said, "personally I wish you'd try it. I'd love it. But business before pleasure. And I mean business."
Parker hesitated. He outweighed the Sergeant by forty pounds but there was something in the young man's eye that he did not relish.
Mike took advantage of Parker's hesitancy and brushed past him into the private office. Parker and Miss Jenks followed.
"All right, Wiley," Parker said. "Say what you have to say and get out."
Mike took the map from Miss Jenks and spread it on the desk. "You own the Maddox timber," he said. "It's no good if you can't get it out. It loses value if the cost of getting it out becomes too high. Well, Mr. Parker, it's going to cost more than you can afford to log that town and haul the timber to the mill."
"What will make the cost prohibitive?" demanded Parker.
Mike pointed to the map. "That timber lies on the south side of the valley there. There's just one possible road. See. It runs along here, down to the river, across the old Maddox bridge and so to town."
"What of it?"
"This of it," Mike said. "You're going to pay me a nice piece of change for every log that crosses the bridge."
"That's what you think," sneered Parker. "That," said Mike, "is what I know. I own the bridge."
"It's a county road and a county bridge. You can't own it."
"It has been condemned," Mike said. "The county has no money to spend for new bridges, especially where there is practically no public travel. So I went to the Supervisors and made them a proposition. I agreed to build a new bridge—which won't be so expensive that I can't finance it. And in return the Supervisors gave me a toll-bridge franchise. All legal, signed, sealed and delivered."
Parker stood silent, staring at the map. Mike continued.
"The franchise authorized me to charge five cents apiece for passenger cars, but, and here's the catch, it lets me charge other vehicles by weight. At the rate of a dollar ton."
He paused. "How many hundred thousand tons of logs will you have to haul across that bridge in the next few years? Figure it out."
"I don't believe it!" Parker shouted.
"Here," said Mike, "is a certified copy of the franchise."
Parker snatched it, read it and dropped into his chair suddenly deflated.
"But this—this is crooked. This is outrageous. This will cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's—it's dirty business."
Mike smiled. "No holds barred, is what you told me. It's legal. Try to beat it. Go ahead. Bust Dad. Take his mill. Take his timber. We'll have a better income from this than from running a woodenware factory."
Parker was whipped. He bit his lip. "What," he asked slowly, "what's your proposition?"
"First," said Mike, "you pay the $12,000 note at the bank. Second, you lay off Dad. You stop sabotage at the mill and in the woods. You quit stirring up labor trouble. You stop meddling with production. That's all I'm asking. Just that you play fair."
Miss Jenks interrupted. "But suppose he promises? How can you hold him to it?"
"I make a contract with him, permitting him to use the bridge for a dollar a month. The contract to be terminated at will at the end of any thirty days. If he behaves the contract continues. If he hits below the belt I clamp down on the first of the next month. How about it, Parker?"
The man knew when he was beaten. He spread his hands in a gesture of complete surrender.
"Right," said Mike. "I'll take along the check to pay off the bank. Here's my agreement with you to sign. And we call it a day."
Parker made out the check, signed the agreement and sat scowling at Mike. Miss Jenks was staring at him, but there was no scowl to disfigure her face.
"Thank you, Mr. Parker," Mike said. "And good morning."
Miss Jenks did not speak until they were in the car.
"I eat my words," she said. "I eat them hide and tail."
"Not enough," Mike told her.
"What more?" she asked.
"In two weeks I go back to duty," he said. "No guess when I'll be back to Newtown. But when I do, I want to come back to something special. I'll be back. If you want to square yourself with me you've got to do something special?"
"Such," he said, "as being here when I come, practically at the altar with a marriage license in one hand and a written promise to love, honor and obey in the other."
"Obey?" she demanded.
"Obey," he said firmly.
"Have it your way, Sergeant." she said. "We certainly got to have discipline in our Army."