Dale Puckett sat in the living room of his farmhouse reading the Brookdale Register. A fastidious man, he had taken off his muddied work shoes at the door in favor of slippers left by his wife Mary. He would read the paper from five thirty to six as he did every evening while she prepared supper and young Tom did his homework. No one spoke while Dale read his paper. He had firmly stated long ago that this was his time to relax after a twelve hour work day with three more hours of chores left in it.
The lead article in the Register was of particular interest to him. The front page showed a large map of Candlewood Valley with boundary lines designating where a proposed new lake would be located. If Norton Utilities got its way, over five thousand acres would be flooded to create it. The utility would use the lake to generate electricity.
Norton had already purchased ninety-five percent of the land needed. The only remaining property was owned by him. And they would never get it.
Hard work had made the farm into one of the most productive in the valley. He had fifty head of milking cows, prize-winning oxen and six horses beginning to race successfully. Along with three hundred acres of grazing pasture, he had ninety more growing corn for feed. The excess he brought to market. To keep it all running he employed three hands along with help from thirteen year old Tom.
His father had come to the valley sixty years ago and started the place with practically nothing. Dale promised him on his deathbed that the farm would remain in the family for his generation and the next. And it would. Young Tom loved the place and the work. Some day it would be his. No goddamn utility company was going to flood over everything he and his father had worked for. It didn’t matter squat to him that every other farmer, many friends included, had sold out to Norton. They wouldn’t get his land. Over his dead body.
The utility had put a price of three hundred dollars an acre on the land needed for the project. That had convinced a lot of folks to sell, being they wanted to get out of farming anyway. Some of the younger ones saw it as an opportunity to make some fast money and move out of the area to jobs that weren’t as back breaking and paid more. But not Dale. He was only thirty three and had a lot of years left doing what he loved and making a decent living at it. The others could do what they wanted. He was staying right where he was.
Being the only holdout had put a lot of pressure on him. Friends he had known for years barely spoke to him. In fact some were downright ornery. Called him names behind his back and sometimes right to his face. It had affected Mary too. If it wasn’t bitterness she saw in her friends, it was the looks and whispers. She had supported his decision from the beginning, but he didn’t know how much longer she’d hold up to the strain on her. Mary was a petite, delicate woman physically, but a fighter inside. She wouldn’t give up easily. He glanced over at her and saw she had supper ready.
He put the paper aside and called up to Tom. “Supper time. Food’s on the table.”
He went into the dining room to take his place at the table. Mary had his Rheingold beer poured for him and was setting a small fruit glass beside Tom’s plate. Dale had started pouring beer into that fruit glass ever since Tom was seven. His father had done the same for him. A taste of beer never hurt a boy. Having some early on stopped him from overdoing it later in life.
Once everyone was seated, they bowed their heads and Dale said grace. “May the good Lord watch over us and keep us from harm,” he said. “And thank you Lord for the food we are about to eat. Amen.”
The food was passed around the table and they ate heartily. It was one of Mary’s special meals; meatloaf with a red sauce over it, creamed potatoes, freshly picked beans and homemade bread. When Tom went to pass a plate to his father, Dale noticed for the first time that the knuckles on his right hand were bruised.
“How was school today?” he asked, breaking the silence.
“Good, dad…good,” Tom replied, without looking up.
Dale glanced at Mary who shook her head just a few inches from side to side There was more that had been left unsaid.
“Yesterday was good along with the day before.” Dale said putting his fork down. “Are they all that good or was today different? I suspect it was by the look of your hand.”
Tom knew he expected a straight answer. “I got in a fight dad. It was nuthin’.”
“All fights are over somethin’,” Dale countered. “What was it?”
“Some guys were pickin’ on me. That’s all.”
“Had to be a reason. What was it?” Dale insisted.
“They were calling me names.”
“Oh yeah, What kind of names?”
“They said I was….I was squat shit. Shit that wasn’t gonna move. And that….that you were the biggest squat shit of all.”
“And you did what when they said that?” Tom could feel the blood rushing to his father’s face. “You did what Tom?”
“I hit ‘em dad. I wasn’t gonna let ‘em call you that!”
“Good,” Dale said holding his emotions in check. “You did the right thing son.”
He knew Mary didn’t agree. According to her, fighting never settled anything. Sometimes that was true but other times it wasn’t. And this was one of them. Let bullies push you around when you’re young and you’ll turn out a weaker man for it.
What bothered Dale was that he was responsible for the fight. His insistence on not going along with the others and selling his land to Norton had caused his family to pay a price. Mary with insults from her friends and now Tom at school. He was about to say that, but Mary spoke first.
“Do you think your father is doing the right thing?” she asked Tom.
Tom didn’t hesitate. “Yes,” he replied. “We should be able to keep our farm and not sell it just because everyone else is.”
“And are you willing to take the insults from those boys?”
“No,” Tom said clenching the fingers of his bruised hand together and making a fist. “I’ll fight them.”
Mary shook her head in frustration.
“And what about you?” her husband asked her. “How do you feel about this now?”
Mary had always been a pillar of sensibility as well as strength. Where he sometimes reacted with runaway emotion, she thought carefully before reacting. Now he wondered if seeing how a decision they had made together affecting their son, still stood. He waited for her answer.
“I feel the same way I did when you said you wanted to hold on to our land,” she said taking his hand in a rare display of affection in front of their son. “Nothing will change that.”
“Good,” Dale said, filling his glass with beer. He turned to Tom. “Drink up.”
They began eating and talked about the planting that would have to be done in the next couple of weeks. The meal was almost over when headlights glared through the living room window. Someone was coming up the driveway at a high speed.
“Who could be coming at this hour?” Mary asked.
Before Dale could answer, there was a crash in the window beside Tom. Glass shattered from a rock thrown through it fell to the floor. Tires squealed outside as the truck turned to head back down the driveway. Seeing that Mary and Tom were all right, Dale ran for his shotgun over the fireplace mantle. But before he could get to the back door, the truck had sped away.
Dale came back into the dining room, holding the shotgun tightly. Glass was scattered everywhere. He bent down under the table and picked up the rock. He held it out to Mary and Tom.
“You had to fight some boys today, Tom” he said. “Now I’ll have to fight their fathers.”
Norton Utilities’ corporate office was located in the largest building in Marbury, Connecticut. The downtown area didn’t have a structure over four stories high, but Norton had somehow gotten a variance to build an eight story headquarters. Residents had fought it, but in the end had lost. “Norton is a growing company and if we want to grow along with them, we need to accommodate them now,” said the town planners. Who could argue that?
James Dolan, chairman and CEO of the utility, was an aggressive young businessman who not only worked tirelessly for Norton’s benefit, but also the community’s. He served on the hospital’s board of directors, was a trustee of the largest bank and member of the board of education. He gave his time freely, but always considering how it benefited Norton.
Under his leadership the company had expanded from a small local power supplier to one that served much of the Northeast. It had grown so quickly that it was in danger of not being able to supply all its customers with electricity. The Candlewood Valley Project was a solution to at least part of the problem. Generating hydroelectric power from the lake via a draw down during the winter peak period was a stroke of genius that many said he couldn’t pull off. But he had done it. The state of Connecticut was happy that a man made lake would be created for recreational use and had been quick to grant permits. Farmers who were struggling in the valley were anxious to sell their land at a reasonable price. All except one. Dale Puckett was the thorn in his side refusing to sell. He had two meetings with him already and had met a volatile man unwilling to sell under any conditions.
Now Puckett was sitting outside his office. Early this morning he had shouted into the phone demanding an appointment that day. “I’ll see you as soon as you can get over here,” Dolan had said. That seemed to have surprised Puckett, but he said he would be there in an hour.
Dolan leaned back in his chair, got comfortable and pressed the intercom button. “Would you please send in Mr. Puckett, Barbara,” he said pleasantly.
Puckett came in dressed in overalls and a flannel shirt. He carried a stained wide brimmed hat in his hand that he slammed down in the chair beside Dolan’s desk.
“If you ever had a chance of buying my land, you lost it last night,” Puckett said angrily. The veins in his neck tightened along with the fist made in both hands at his side. “Arguing about land is one thing, but when you threaten my family that’s another. By God I won’t stand for that. I…”
“Now, now let’s calm down Mr. Puckett,” Dolan said getting up and moving to Puckett’s side of the desk. “I don’t know anything about your family being threatened. Maybe you’d better explain what happened.”
“You know what happened. Someone threw a rock through my dining room window last night smashing it. We were having supper, my wife and son when the whole window breaks into pieces. Then we hear a pickup tearing out our driveway. Now who else would be behind that except you Dolan. Who?”
“I assure you I nor anyone in this company had anything to do with that,” Dolan said picking up Puckett’s hat from the chair. “Please, sit down and let’s talk about this.”
“There’s nuthin’ to talk about. You’ll do anything to get that land of mine. Even send your cronies to scare my family out their wits.”
“Mr. Puckett, Norton Utilities is a reputable company that certainly wouldn’t stoop to violence under any circumstances,” Dolan replied calmly. “Whoever did this thing deserves to be punished under the law. Did you call the police?”
“No. Wouldn’t do any good. Couldn’t get a look at the truck or anybody in it.”
“Well again, you can be sure that we had nothing to do with this. Now won’t you please sit down. Can I get you some coffee?”
“Don’t want any coffee. Just want to be left alone to run my farm,” Puckett said, taking back his hat. Dolan moved aside for him to sit down. He refused to.
Dolan turned an easel against the far wall so it faced Puckett. On it was a large map of Candlewood Valley with every parcel of land indicated on it. A red dot had been placed over each one purchased by Norton. Puckett’s property was at the very center.
“You don’t have to show me that again,” Puckett said with a wave of his hand toward the map, “I know all about how important my land is to your ridiculous lake.”
“I know you do,” Dolan replied, “but just to show that we aren’t trying to intimidate you with violence Mr. Puckett, Norton Utilities is willing to increase the price for your land.”
“My land’s not for sale at any price. I thought I made that clear.”
“You did, but sometimes money has a way of changing a man’s mind.”
Daley watched Puckett closely. He knew that Puckett was set on not selling but at the same time could see that his curiosity was piqued.
“How much money?”
“Six hundred an acre. Double the price we offered last time. That’s a total of twenty-four thousand dollars for your four hundred acres,” Dolan said. “That’s a lot of money.” He waited for a sign of approval from Puckett but didn’t get it. Instead he got up from his chair and went straight for the map.
“That’s chicken feed,” Puckett said, his anger returning. “My land is worth a hell of a lot more than that, and so is everybody else’s but they’re too stupid to know it. I’m not.”
“Well I guess that’s why we’ll have to pay you more for it,” Dolan said humoring him. “But three hundred an acre is still a good price.”
“Maybe if you’re looking at this map you might get suckered into selling because it doesn’t show what Norton is getting out of it.”
“I don’t understand. This map was drawn up by a surveyor and accurately shows every parcel of land.”
“Oh that it does, from the air. A bird’s eye view. Not from the floor of the valley where it counts.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You know all right,” Puckett said pointing to a section of the map where his land was located alongside that of his neighbor Harold Knowles. “The Register says you’re going to build three dams at either end of the valley and flood it. The dams will be high enough so you’ll get enough water in your lake to make it an average of thirty feet deep. Since Knowles and I lie low in the valley that’ll put about forty feet of water over our property.”
“Yes I guess that’s about right,” Dolan said, concerned with where Puckett was going with this.
“Now the back of my property rises up,” Puckett said gesturing with his hands, “and comes up over the level of the lake. Knowles’ land goes up even higher so most of it’ll be above water. That land is very hilly and was never much use to him as my back fifty wasn’t to me. But it’s going to be pure gold to you isn’t it. That useless high land is going to be lakeshore property on your new lake. Property you'll sell off at a hell of a lot more than even six hundred an acre.”
Dolan was taken back by Puckett’s explanation of what he knew of course to be true. Norton’s pitch to the farmers was that even though they were buying useless hilly farmland, they would pay the same price for it. That sounded like a good deal. Except to a perceptive man like Puckett.
“Mr. Puckett,” he began cautiously, “Norton Utilities isn’t in the real estate business. We’re in the business of delivering electrical power to our customers. We’re buying water, not land. Water that will enable us to generate millions of kilowatt hours during the high period of winter heating consumption. As far as the land above water is concerned, we’ve arranged with the state of Connecticut for them to use a sizeable amount of it for recreational purposes.” He paused and then added, “there may be boats going over where your farm was, but they’ll be from a state launching ramp.”
“Well I don’t think they’ll be any boats at all,” Puckett said indignantly, “because there won’t be any lake without my property. One thing this map does show is that what I own is right smack in the middle of the valley. There’s no way around me and I’m not sellin’. Not for six hundred an acre, nine hundred or anything. You’re not going to force me from land that’s been in my family for sixty years and provides a good living for me.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Dolan said stepping away from the map.
“Well you’re sorry sure, but you’ll be a lot sorrier if you’re behind those people threatening me and my family. Somebody comes by again and they’ll find themselves on the wrong end of a loaded shotgun.”
“I assure you again that I know nothing about that. And I wish you would reconsider our offer,” Dolan said while thinking about the last card he had to play.
“I don’t need to reconsider,” Puckett said putting on his wrinkled hat. “I’m not sellin.”
Dolan followed him to the door, then stepped in front of him to hold it closed.
“If you don’t sell your land for a reasonable price, we may be forced to take legal action against you Mr. Puckett. As a public utility seeking to develop power for the region, and having rights to ninety per cent of the property needed, a court may force you to sell.” Dolan said it as forcefully as he could.
“Well let ‘em try,” Puckett replied grabbing hold of Dolan’s wrist and removing it from the doorknob. “Like I said, there’ll be a loaded shotgun waiting.”
Dolan stepped aside and Puckett walked out of the office.
Dolan returned to his desk and lit up a cigarette. There were two things he knew for sure. Puckett wasn’t going to sell his land at any price and litigation against him would be costly with no guarantee they would win. Besides that, a trial would bring about bad publicity and tarnish a civic minded image he had worked long and hard for.
It was true he hadn’t been behind the threat to Puckett and his family. He was sure it was the work of irate farmers that Puckett was standing in the way of selling their property. The farmers were angry. Some even desperate to sell their land. Desperate men could be incited to violence. Yes, that’s what he would do. Incite them.
Other ebooks by Bob Neidhardt are
Kill The Author, Mr. Best Selling Author and Tarnished Bronze.
All are available on Amazon.com