Sunset Stories : No. 29 - Bradbury's War

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Westerns  |  House: Booksie Classic
The head of a lumber company is frustrated by an old dendrophile whom he confronts. The consequences are surprising.

Submitted: June 25, 2016

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Submitted: June 25, 2016

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BRADBURY’S WAR

“You mean to tell me that one little old man did all this?” Douglas McCormack, head of one of the Northwest’s largest lumber companies, leaned forward in his king-size chair, slapping meaty hands on his desk and glaring at his field manager.

Shifting uneasily in his more modest seat, Bill Wooldridge nodded. “That’s about it, Doug.”

“Alone?”

“Well, I heard there are some Indians he’s friendly with. I think there’s about half a dozen, but I’ve never seen any of them. They might have helped a little. I guess we have to accept that he did most of it himself.” Shifting his five-foot-nine, two hundred pound heft back in the chair, McCormack took a large cigar from a cedarwood box, which he pushed across the desk to Wooldridge, who shook his head and produced his own pack of noxious black smokes, lighting up in unison with his boss

McCormack shook his head in wonderment. “Bill,” he said quietly, “if I didn’t know you better, I’d have a hard time taking this in.” He stabbed a finger at the single sheet of paper on his desk. It was the letter he had received from Wooldridge three days earlier, informing him of serious problems with the company’s latest logging operation and stating that the field manager was on his way to headquarters to discuss the matter.

“I’ve read what you say here,” McCormack said, tapping the note again, “but I think you’d better tell me face to face, then maybe I’ll start believing it.”

Wooldridge, a lean six-footer, rubbed a forefinger under his nose and sprawled back in his seat. “Okay. Well, I went up there to the Bitterroots, like we agreed. Took Sam Dawes along. We scouted around some, saw a few spots, but nothing that really impressed us. Then, after five days, we came across as fine a belt of timber as I ever saw. Mostly fir and hemlock. Stretches for about five miles along the foothills and varies from just under a mile to nearly two miles deep. We did the surveying and found things just about right, even down to a river near the low end of the timber. Perfect position for a slide, so the logs could be floated down to the main fork. You know where that is.”

“McCormack nodded. “Yes, but it’s a good way from where you’re talking about.”

“That’s right, but it’s a clear run, or it was.”

“Was?”

“I’ll come to that later. We were just about through and were sitting there, talking it over, when this skinny little old man, must be around seventy, came tramping along. Said his name was Francis Bradbury and asked what we were up to. We told him and for minute I thought he’d gone crazy. He said we’d no right to do it and if there was any logging done there, it would be over his corpse. When he calmed down a little, he pointed out some of the trees to us. Said they were ancient long before our grandparents were born – some of them old before Columbus came across. He claimed that one of them was thirty-two feet in circumference at chest level and two hundred and sixty feet tall. Another was thirty-five feet around and two hundred and forty-eight feet in height. The little jasper seems to know every tree there individually. Reckons he’s their guardian.”

McCormack rasped a thumb along his jaw. “Then what?”

“Well, we weren’t inclined to take him too seriously. Didn’t see what he could do. There’s hardly anybody around there, apart from this family of Indians and Bradbury.  We don’t know where the Indians are at any particular time – they seem to move around. Bradbury has an old shack but he’s never there. He appears to live mostly in the open. Nearest place with any habitation is a settlement called Jackson Halt. That’s about twenty miles north of the site and it’s nothing but a livery stable, a general store-cum-saloon and six or seven houses. Wouldn’t even be that much, except that the trains stop there. So, like I said, we ignored this little runt. I picked up a team of good men. Got John Appleyard as foreman. You know him. And that Chinese cook we used down Gallatin way. We laid out the quarters like always.”

McCormack’s provision for his workers was exemplary in the industry. In addition to good food, the accommodation was invariably comfortable and was built by the loggers themselves, before commercial work began. It was of a standard pattern, a single log building comprising combined sleeping and eating quarters, with a few square feet partitioned off, so that the manager could do his paperwork. At either end of the large room was a separate section, one for keeping tools, the other for the cook. Both were accessed internally from the main area and externally from doors in the end walls.

Wooldridge eased forward, stubbing out his smoke. “Problems started right away,” he said, his face  a picture of weariness as he recalled his experiences. “I’d planned to leave the boys to it and go off with Dawes to do some more scouting, but we never got to that. Seemed as though Bradbury had been watching every move we made. Would have been easy for him too, with so much cover.”

“And you never saw him?”

“Not once, after that first day I told you about.”

“Well, how did he and these Indians, if they were there, manage to do all this and keep out of sight?”

“It’s a way of life with such people. They’re expert woodsmen.”

“Okay. Go on.”

“Well, we were all ready. Got ourselves bedded down, figuring on an early start the following day. We got up, had breakfast, went for the tools and found they’d all been stolen during the night. There was a pencilled note on the door, saying that that was just a beginning. Little varmint must have gone in from the outside door, quiet as a mouse. Took everything except the grindstones.”

“I’ll be damned,” said McCormack. “So you had to get fresh tools?”

“That’s right, and being as the place is so remote, that took four days. While we were about it, I bought a few solid locks and started up a night guard system. The boys didn’t like it, but I insisted.”

“What next?”

“He stole the cook.”

“McCormack sat bolt upright. “How the hell did he do that?”

“Was just after we got back with the new tools. We were ready to start again. Cook was up first, like always. He went down to the stream that feeds into the river. Took his buckets to get water. When he didn’t come back for a while, I went to look for him. Buckets were there all right, with the bottoms busted, and there was another note tied to one of them. Said that Bradbury had ‘reasoned’ with the Chinaman. Hadn’t done him any harm, but we wouldn’t see him again.”

McCormack’s head rose ceilingwards. “What did you do?”

“Well, you know how these men are about food. They were pretty mad, especially as they knew it would take a while to get another cook. None of them wanted to do the job, so I set up another duty roster, giving it to a different fellow every day, and sent Dawes off to find a full-time man. I don’t mind telling you, the situation was getting tenser by the hour.”

“I can imagine that. Then what?”

“Bradbury poisoned the water.”

“Am I really hearing this?”

“Yes, you are. Happened the day after he went off with the cook. We know how he did it. Anyway, just after we’d eaten, we all started feeling queer. Pretty soon, we were all down with gut gripes and the runs. It must have happened when the feller who was on cooking duty went down to get water – we’d repaired the buckets. He’d just filled up when he heard a noise across the stream, saw what he thought was a man moving about and went to investigate. He prowled around for a few minutes but couldn’t find anything, so he came back. Then we ate. Next morning, we were all groggy and in no state to work. Then we found a note on the bunkhouse door, saying we’d be feeling sick for a couple of days because a little something had been put into the water while our man’s attention was distracted.”

McCormack sighed. “I thought such stories only came in dime novels.”

“Yeah, well, the Mexicans have a word for this kind of thing. They call it guerrilla tactics. I think it means little war.”

“That’s right. What next?”

“Right. Well, we were all laid up for two days and the boys were feeling downright mutinous by then. They may be tough, but they reckon they’re paid for working and they sure weren’t doing that. So, by the second morning after the poisoning, we’d had no other incidents and we were ready to get going again. When the first man showed at the bunkhouse door, there was rifle shot and a bullet hit the woodwork, six inches from his head. That went on all morning and afternoon, every time anybody tried to get out. By the time it was over, that door and the frame were in quite a state.”

“What about the night guard? Couldn’t he do anything?”

“No. He’d gone inside first thing, to rouse everybody else. Anyway, he’d heard nothing untoward.”

“So what did you do?”

“We tried to get out by the end doors, but naturally, we’d locked them from the outside. I guess we slipped up there, but we were getting a little confused.”

“I don’t blame you. I might have done the same myself. It’s a natural tendency to put padlocks on the outside. What then?”

“I suppose we could have busted out, but then we reckoned he’d just keep on peppering whichever door we used. Anyway, those boys aren’t soldiers. None of them wanted to chance it. We had a couple of rifles with us, so in the end I took one and decided to dash through the main doorway, figuring that Bradbury didn’t aim to kill anybody and that maybe I could weave around him somehow. I was about ready to make my move, when a stone hit the door. I looked out and there it was, with a piece of paper wrapped around it. I picked it up, went back in, wondering what the rascal had to say. The note just read: ‘That’s all for now’.”

“Damn it, Bill,” said McCormack. “I’m sorry about what you went through, but I have to say I don’t know whether to hate this little devil or admire him. Carry on.”

“Well, by then, there was no point in trying to get any work done that day, so I did my best to pacify the boys. We bedded down early, then this loony started with the crackers.”

“Crackers?”

“That’s right. Firecrackers. Made a hell of a racket. We found out afterwards that he was fastening the damned things to arrows and shooting them from God knows where. Kept us awake all night. I guess that’s when the Indians might have been helping him. I don’t see how one man could have kept up that din by himself. The following morning, what with just getting over the poisoning, then being penned up all day, then getting no sleep, everybody was mighty grumpy. I let the boys have the day off and promised to see them right for pay, thinking we’d get started at first light the next morning.”

“But you didn’t?”

“No. Bradbury did nothing till after dark, then he started with his fireworks again, so we had another night without sleep. That was enough. The crew quit.”

“All of them?”

“Everyone but Sam Dawes. Appleyard said they’d talked it over among themselves. I offered to keep them on day wages till we’d sorted things out, but they reckoned the place was jinxed. Said there was plenty of work where they wouldn’t have to put up with being pestered like that, so they just walked off. I can’t say they were at fault. Those weren’t exactly normal working conditions.”

McCormack stubbed out his cigar. “I doubt that anybody ever heard a stranger tale than this. What did you do then?”

“Dawes and I set off to find another gang. We tried to be quick about it, but the boys who’d quit were putting the word around faster than we could move. Anyway, we did find some men. Not a full team and maybe not as good as the first lot, but we did our best. Got them on site and ready. To tell the truth, I was surprised find the old buzzard hadn’t burned down the bunkhouse while we were away. We’d carted the tools off with us, to avoid losing them again.”

“So, he didn’t try to take the wagon or horses, right?”

“He never interfered with them. I don’t know why that was, except maybe he  wanted to leave us with the easiest means of getting away from  there. Anyway, we reckoned we were finally primed to start.”

“Then you got stopped again?”

“We surely did, and this time it was a good deal more drastic.”

“How?”

“We’d just turned in, the night before we planned to get going. There’d been no harassment during the day and when nightfall came, there were no more fireworks, but around ten o’clock, we heard a loud noise, like thunder, then a rumbling sound.  Seemed to come from some way north of us. We figured there must have been a storm somewhere, although it wasn’t that kind of weather. Then, about fifteen minutes later, there was another sound, just like the first one, then another, then another, so that was four altogether, spread over forty-five minutes or so. That was all. There were no more disturbance. So we had breakfast, then I walked down to check the gradient for the slide. Went to the river, only it wasn’t there.”

“The river not there? Bill, what are you saying? I can just about buy a cook being stolen, but not a river.”

“Well, that’s how it was. Just a trickle of water. So I took Dawes and a couple of the boys and we walked upstream. Five miles or so north of the site, the river flows, or flowed, through a narrow gorge with steep rock walls on either side. Except that most of one side and a fair amount the other weren’t there any more. That was what we’d heard the night before. Bradbury had dynamited the faces and the river was dammed.”

“So there’s a flood up there?”

“There is, but the spot where the job was done isn’t far below the lake where the river flows from. We didn’t have time to go up there, so all I can say is that water’s backed up all right. I don’t know the full extent of it, but one of the new crew says there’s another outlet running westwards from the lake. I can’t confirm that, and anyway it doesn’t matter to us.”

“Could you have cleared the obstruction?”

“Doug, believe me, there’s half a mountain in there. Putting that right isn’t a job for a lumber gang. Some of the stuff is just dust and rubble and some of the rocks are as big as this office.”

“Good grief. Bradbury must have used hell of a lot of dynamite to do that.”

“He did. We discovered that later.”

“How did he get hold of so much?”

“Easy. Like I said, this Jackson Halt place has a railroad siding. It’s common enough for trains to stop there and shunt some of the cars aside. The engines go on and leave those cars until they’re joined by others over the next few days, then they move on together. One of the boxcars in that siding was full of dynamite, bound for the Goodbody Mining Company.”

“Surely the railroad people have some sort of security precautions?”

“Seems not. They never had need of them, or not before this incident. ’Course, the car was locked up, but a determined man could have got in without too much trouble. And they don’t come any more determined than Bradbury. He must have shifted the dynamite somehow. My guess is he loaded it quietly during the night. Maybe he had a wagon, or mules. However he did it, nobody knew about it for three days.”

“Why was that?”

“I guess Bradbury must have got in, taken what he wanted, then locked up again. No reason for anybody to check till the consignment got to the mining people. When they looked into the matter, it turned out that Jackson Halt was the only place where the car had been standing still long enough for the stuff to have been stolen.”

“I suppose there’s no doubt that it was Bradbury who did it?”

“I was coming to that. You wouldn’t expect him to come right out and admit it, but when we got back to the site, the boys showed us an arrow that had been fired at the bunkhouse door. Had a note pinned to it that left us in no doubt.”

McCormack’s mind was working fast, his pragmatic businessman’s sense performing a dance with his more humane assessment of Francis Bradbury’s amazing crusade.

“So,” he said at length, “now we have no operation at all unless the gorge can be cleared?”

“That’s right,” Wooldridge answered, lighting up another of his venomous stogies. “But I tell you, Doug, that’s a big job. Would need either a fair-sized construction outfit, or maybe the army.”

McCormack waved a dismissive hand. “Not the army, Bill. Why, I’d be a laughing stock, admitting that one man had brought us to a standstill. I do know one or two people in the construction industry but they’re all at full stretch and likely to stay that way. I hate to say it, but I think we really do have a problem here. Despite what he’s done, I’m bound to say I’d like to meet this Bradbury. He seems to be one of a kind.”

“He’s that all right, but as to meeting him, the man’s a phantom. If he doesn’t want to be found, nobody will find him. And before you ask about the law, don’t bother. There isn’t much of it up there, and a man like Bradbury could give it the runaround for years.”

McCormack sat pondering for a nearly a minute, then stood abruptly. “Okay, Bill,” he said. “Leave this with me. Stay at the hotel and come in tomorrow morning, around nine.”

As Wooldridge walked out, he was replaced immediately by McCormack’s office manager, who handed a scruffy brown envelope to his boss. “This was handed in for you a few minutes ago,” he said.

“Who brought it?”

“A small boy. Said a little old fellow gave it to him this morning. Told him to bring it here at noon and gave him a dollar to do it.”

Little old man! Before he opened the envelope, McCormack knew the note inside  was from Bradbury. He dismissed the office manager, pulled out the single sheet of lined paper and read the neat pencilled writing:

Dear Mr McCormack,

I guess by now Wooldridge has told you about our differences over the trees he has been trying to fell. I do not intend to be so foolish as to call on you, but I want to leave you in no doubt as to my strength of feeling in this matter. I am no great writer, but I am willing to meet you and discuss the position, if you wish. I am prepared to see you and you alone and I have a suggestion as to how that can be arranged.

If you get to Jackson Halt by noon on Thursday of next week, you will see that there is an old narrow trail leading directly westwards. Six miles along it, there is a big lone tree. You cannot miss it, as it is the only landmark for a long way around. I would be happy to meet you at that tree at three o’clock in the afternoon. If you come alone – and I shall be able to check this – we can talk. You may come armed if you wish, though I have no violent intentions toward you. I cannot wait for your reply, so I shall see whether you turn up or not. If you do, we may have a meeting of minds. If not, you must accept the consequences.

Francis Bradbury


The following morning, Bill Wooldridge called on his boss and was shown the note. “What will you do, Doug?” he said, tossing the paper back across the desk.

“I’ll see him,” McCormack replied. “Might do me good to get away from here for a few days anyway. We’ll go up there together, then I’ll leave you at this Jackson Halt place.”

Four days later, having travelled first by stagecoach, then by hired horses, McCormack and Wooldridge, on the last lap of their trip, reached the trees that had been the focus of all the trouble. Having pointed them out, Wooldridge was all for pressing on, but his chief called a halt and dismounted. “Wait here, Bill,” he said. “I’d like to spend a little time alone.”

For over two hours, McCormack wandered back and forth, working his way through two of his big cigars. When he rejoined Wooldridge, he was uncharacteristically quiet, remaining so until the two men reached Jackson Halt later that day, the eve of the scheduled meeting with Bradbury.

On the Thursday, at one-thirty in the afternoon, McCormack mounted his horse and set off, alone and unarmed, along the old west trail. There was no mistaking the meeting place, for the big tree was indeed the only feature of note for a long way in any direction. Reaching it, the lumber boss heaved himself from the saddle and looked around him. There was no sign of anyone approaching.

McCormack had a restless drive that rarely allowed him to stand still. He looked at his watch, ensured that he had arrived punctually and began pacing to and fro. Checking the time again ten minutes later, he was close to concluding that he’d been hoaxed. “Damn the man,” he said aloud, moving towards his horse. “Where the hell is he?”

“Right here.” With a rustle and a slither, Bradbury emerged from the foliage, dropped onto the lowest branch of the tree and swung himself down, retaining full control of an old rifle. “I was just making sure you didn’t have company,” he said.

“There’s nobody backing me up and I have no gun. I’m a businessman, not a bandit.” McCormack looked down four inches into the clear light-blue eyes of the scrawny buckskin-clad old man. “You’re Bradbury, are you?”

“Correct.”

“What do you want of me?”

“An assurance that you’ll stop trying to fell my trees.”

“Your trees. And how, may I ask, did you come by them?”

“Well, it’s true I don’t own them. Let’s say I’m their custodian. Do you know how long some of those trees have been there, McCormack?”

“Yes. Bill Wooldridge told me you gave him a lecture on the subject. No need to go over it again.”

“All right. Just tell me, what do you suppose is the largest living thing on the Earth?”

“I didn’t come here to play games,” snapped McCormack.

“Oblige me this once,” the old man replied calmly.

“I don’t know. An elephant, I guess.”

“No. Try again.”

“Well, a whale, then.”

“No, Mr. McCormack. It’s a tree. Some of those that you have your eye on weigh hundreds of tons. They have a life, just like you have. And they’ve been around a lot longer than you. They support creatures who have as much right to live as you do. Without making a sound you can hear, they each hoist many a gallon of water aloft, day in, day out. They’re magnificent, McCormack, and I tell you that as long as I have breath in my body, I shall defend them.”

“You can’t protect every tree in the country, Bradbury.”

“One day, somebody will. Meantime, I can only do my share. Tell me something else. You’ve felled a lot of trees in your time. How many have you planted?”

“That’s not my job,” retorted McCormack.

“Well, it should be,” Bradbury shot back. “You don’t expect to harvest wheat if you don’t plant it and trees are no different. What you’re doing, McCormack, is stealing from the past and the future to pay yourself now. How long do you think you can go on doing that?”

“All right, Bradbury. You’ve made your point. What are you suggesting?”

“I can’t be responsible for what happens anywhere else. All I’m saying is if you let my trees be, I’ll leave you in peace. If you don’t, I’ll fight you right to the end. And believe me, you haven’t seen all my tricks yet.”

McCormack grunted. “Speaking of tricks, how did you do that thing with the dynamite? I’m just curious to know how a man moves all that weight so quickly without being noticed.”

“It wasn’t much of a problem,” said the old man. “I broke into the boxcar back yonder at night. Borrowed packhorses from some friends. The dynamite was in handy-sized crates, so I loaded up during the night. Took only a few trips.”

“Trips to where? You were fifteen miles from the place you blew up.”

“I needed the horses only to go to the river’s edge, a mile and a half from the railroad siding. That’s where I transferred the loads to three rafts I’d made and tied together. I floated the stuff down to the gorge, then unloaded it again – those friends I mentioned helped me with the lifting at both ends. Then I did the drilling and placed the charges. You know the rest.”

“How come you’re so handy with dynamite?”

“The only paid job I ever did was blasting. I know a lot about it.”

“Well, this is the queerest thing I ever heard,” said McCormack. He turned away and stood still, staring at the sky for a good two minutes, then turned sharply back to the old man. “I can beat you, Bradbury,” he said quietly. “You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes. I realise you can win in the end. I’m also aware that you’d have to use up a good part of your resources to do it. There’s a few moves left to me yet and I’ll try them all. You’ll find me ten times more trouble than this whole thing is worth. You said you’re a businessman, so figure it out.”

McCormack turned away again, staring upwards in silence for so long that Bradbury wondered if the lumber chief had forgotten he had company. The old man tried to continue: “If it’s any –”

“Be quiet,” snapped McCormack. “How do you expect a man to think if you keep talking?” Bradbury fell silent and not another word was said for over twenty minutes more, then McCormack turned again to the old dendrophile. “All right,” he said. “I don’t like your way of making your point, but I respect the point itself. I can’t speak for anyone else in the lumber business, but you have my word that my company will leave your trees alone. Goodbye, Bradbury.”

“Goodbye, McCormack.”

* * *

 


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