It was sometime in late 1973, maybe late September or early October when I started getting feelers from the Caughlin brothers about whether I'd be interested in selling out my business to them. Frank and Ryan Caughlin had once worked for Billy, back when he first started out on his own. There had been a falling out between them and Billy had been forced to fire them after he and Frank got involved in a pushing match that almost turned into a fight. Ryan had been ready to jump in on his brother's side but the rest of Billy's crew had kept him out of it. When Frank saw that he wasn't going to get any help, he backed off and he and his brother collected the money owed them and took off. A month later they started their own logging business and started going around like I was and selling firewood to larger home fueling businesses for resale.
Over the years I'd run into one or the other of them, usually when they were out trying to steal one of my delivery accounts. As a general rule, people who delivered coal and heating oil to homes were hard workers and pretty loyal to the suppliers who had serviced them decently over the years. Every once in awhile though, one of my deliveries would switch over to the Caughlin's, for either a lower price or because they thought I should have been catering to their needs better than I was. I had as much business as I could handle anyway, so I didn't feel too bad when I lost an account to them. I could usually replace the lost account with another, just as good, in a matter of days. Billy had gotten used to being outbid on logging work by the Caughlin's. He wasn't happy with that, but wasn't really in a position to do much about it since a lot of the bids were public works and open to all comers.
By the 1970's, the Caughlin brothers were running about twenty small logging crews and had ten or so delivery trucks operating over three states. My firewood delivery business had been starting to shrink because the newer homes were all being built with central heating and propane or natural gas service. Mostly people had fireplaces as a decorative thing rather than as a source of heating. I was still selling a lot of firewood, but the people I was selling to were selling half cord loads and doing free deliveries and stacking for their dwindling customer base. They had to offer the service just to be competitive, but they no longer thought of it as a good profit center for them. Any fool could see that the business was changing and not for the better. It would have been a good thing to sell out at that time if it hadn't been for the fact that it would leave Billy at the Caughlin's, not so tender, mercy. After I ignored their feelers for a month or two, Frank and Ryan came over to Groton to pay me a visit. Like me, they were both in their early thirties. Frank was a couple years older than Ryan and I, about Billy's age. They didn't waste too much time bullshitting about old times with me, but came straight to the point of their visit.
"Jackie, we're either going to buy you out today or else we're going to run you out of the business pretty soon anyway. The business in this area isn't big enough to support everybody. Ryan and I will pay you $75,000.00 for everything. All your trucks, drivers and all of your customers. You and Billy can keep that fancy furniture thing you're doing together. That's the offer and it's all we're going to give you so don't try to get us to sweeten it. What do you say?" Frank, like usual, did all the talking for the two of them.
"Where would that leave Billy?" I knew I wasn't going to sell to those two, but it never hurt to find out how far ahead they had been thinking.
"Fuck Billy. We don't care about him one way or the other. If he can find places to sell his wood, we won't bother him. Hell, you can even help him as long as you stay away from the customers we're buying off of you. You better take our offer Jackie, otherwise you might find bad things happening to your trucks and drivers. You're going to get out of the business one way or another anyway, you may as well do it the smart way."
"Look guys, I appreciate you coming to me with an offer. I need to take a few days and talk it over with my wife before I can give you an answer. I'd been thinking of selling anyway, but I thought I could get at least $100,000.00 for the equipment, customers and the goodwill. Are you sure that $75,000.00 is your best offer?"
"That's it, and that's only if you sell today. In a few days you'll wish that you took it when you had the chance."
"All right, if I have to give you my answer today, then it has to be a no. Frank, if I were you I'd think twice about threatening me or my drivers. If anything happens to the drivers or the trucks I'll be over to square it up with you myself. I've let you assholes go around slashing your prices to steal away my accounts for a long time and I didn't say anything because it was so stupid for you to do it. How can you raise up your prices on any of them without them coming back over to me, or at least giving me a phone call?" I moved in closer to Frank as I was talking. I was hoping he'd make some kind of move so I could knock him on his ass. He backed away from me a little. "How about it Ryan, you agree with your brother about putting me out of business if I refuse to sell?"
"Jackie I thought you'd see that this was a good, fair offer. Frank didn't mean what he said about that other stuff. We're businessmen not thugs. Frank watches too much television that's all. If you don't want to sell, then we'll just undercut you on price until you can't compete. There's no need for that other stuff. Come on Frank, let's go home. Jackie's not interested." Ryan was the smart one. He knew enough not to make any threats himself.
As soon as they were gone I drove over to Billy's to let him know what had happened. As I expected, Billy was excited at the prospects the Caughlin's had offered. Billy was always more blood thirsty than I was. He had matured in some ways as he got older, but not to the point where he didn't enjoy a good scrap. His advice was that the two of us go over to the Caughlin's and make them an offer of our own. Billy's basic argument was that he didn't want to see anybody innocent get hurt, like Lenny or one of the other drivers. If we waited, he asserted, they'd have at least one free crack at doing just that.
"What it comes down to is who do you want to protect, those dick heads or your employees who depend on you to look after them? If you don't go over there and put the fear into them, they'll work themselves into believing that you'll fold up your tent if they give you a little push. It would be a damn shame if something bad happened because we didn't show them that they're mistaken soon enough."
I'll admit to you that I was a little pissed myself at them having the gall to come over thinking that they could strong arm me in the first place. Maybe I'll even admit that I hadn't fully grown up either, and wasn't above getting a little excited at the prospect of kicking both those bozos asses. I'd like to think that my main reason was to try to avert violent injury being done to one or more of my employees. I made Billy promise to sleep on it overnight and to not mention anything to Theresa. I told him that if we both agreed on going to see them in the morning, then that is what we'd do. Billy was grinning when I left his farm. He said he'd call me in the morning to let me know whether he'd changed his mind or not. He woke me up at four thirty the next morning, telling me that he'd meet me in New London at six. I just laughed when he asked me whether I'd had a change of heart about it. It would have been too cruel to do that to him after letting him get his hopes up overnight. We arranged to meet in the supermarket parking lot in New London that we sometimes used if we were going somewhere together in one car. I got there at about a quarter to six and Billy was already parked and waiting for me. He jumped in my car and asked if I wanted to stop somewhere and grab some breakfast. I'd gotten some coffee before I left the house, but I figured a nice breakfast would be a good idea before we went over to the house where the Caughlin's lived. Frank was married and had a few kids, but Ryan still lived with all of them. Ryan had almost married a girl right after high school, but something came up and they called it off at the last minute. She had gotten married to someone else a few months later, and Ryan had stayed single ever since.
We were sitting in the diner finishing off a big breakfast and Billy was telling me that he'd prefer to be the one that took Frank on if it was all the same to me. "He's the kind of guy I just can't stand Jackie. He's got a big mouth until somebody stands up to him and then he'll back down if he doesn't have a lot of help behind him. You'll see. After today he'll stay so far away from us it will be like he's disappeared. Ryan stays close to his brother, so you won't see either of them after today." I hoped Billy was right, and I actually felt like he was. There are some people that you just believe when they tell you something bad is going to happen to you. People like my father and Billy, and I hoped, at least to some extent, that I could include me too in that category. Frank wasn't like that. At least he wasn't like that to me. We were parked outside Frank's house by seven o'clock, just waiting for them to come out. Billy was leaning against my front fender, his arms folded in front of him and a patient smile on his face. If you knew Billy at all, you would be able to see how happy he was being there. I stayed inside the car, content to let Billy's presence speak for my intentions. What happened next really surprised me. Frank sent his wife out to talk with us.
She walked right over to Billy, wearing a housecoat and slippers. She'd put a scarf over her hair. It was a fairly cold day and she wasn't really dressed for it "Is your name Billy?" She had come up to with about ten feet of him when she spoke. "I'm Sheila Caughlin, Frank's wife. He said to tell you that he doesn't want any trouble here at the house. He asked me to find out where you two want to meet him and Ryan." Billy just looked at her, not changing that little grin on his face at all. After she had quit talking, Billy yelled over at the house.
"Hey Frank, you're still the biggest pussy I ever met. You send your old lady out here hoping to shoo me away so you and that chicken shit brother of yours can sneak off somewhere and hide out from me and Jackie? Your kids must really be proud of their father, that's all I can say. Why don't you just come out here and act like you are a man, and come tell me 'Fuck you' to my face?" Billy really knew how to put scorn in his voice. He was also loud enough to wake up the neighbors. "You may as well come out Frank, unless you don't care if the whole neighborhood knows that you're a coward. I'll tell you what, you come on out with Ryan and I'll kick both of your asses all by myself, at the same time. I'm not leaving until you either come out or call the police for protection. So what's it going to be shit head? Sheila, it must be pretty awful being married to that worthless piece of shit. You ever made love with a real man?" When Billy got started, he wasn't real good about setting limits and not going over the limits of common decency. My father was even worse, but neither of them cared about things like that when they had the adrenalin flowing.
Predictably, that last thing got Frank to at least come out to his front porch. "I'm warning you Blackwell, you keep a civil tongue in front of my family."
"Or else what, Frank? You going to sic your mother on me? Come down off your porch and let's you and I settle this thing right now. Bring Ryan, I don't care. Jackie will stay in the car." I could see Ryan looking out the front window at Billy and I. He didn't look like he was going to be coming out any time soon. "Come on Frank. If you don't come down soon you'll never be able to keep living in this neighborhhod. You want your kids teased by all the other kids in the neighborhood about how big a chicken shit you are?" I don't know if Frank had been going to come down or not before Billy started talking about his kids, but right after that, he charged down off the porch, coming right at Billy. Billy moved over, forward and to his left, to get away from the car and from Frank's wife.
When the two men closed together, it sounded like two stags colliding head on. Both of them went down in a tangled heap, but Billy was on top of Frank when they finally came to rest. He started to punch Frank's face over and over, with a fury that caused me to jump up out of my car and run over to break it up. I was afraid that Billy would kill Frank. If Ryan hadn't come running out the door with a pistol, I think the whole thing might have just ended right there. Billy still had his temper up, and I had my hands full trying to get him over to the car. When I saw Ryan with the gun, I let Billy go so that the two of us could get away from there. I figured that Billy would know how dangerous guns could be from his experience with Theresa, and would want to get as far away from Ryan as I did. Instead of doing that, Billy put his head down and charged right at Ryan. I heard one shot and then Billy was on him. In ten seconds, Ryan was unconscious and Billy was pounding his head with his fists. I pulled Billy off of Ryan and could see that he'd been shot in the shoulder area and was bleeding.
His eyes were crazy, and he was practically incoherant in his anger. I thought he was going to lash out at me and I started yelling to him to be still because he'd been shot. At some point my words must have penetrated, because Billy started checking himself out to see where he'd been hit. I took off my jacket and started ripping at my undershirt trying to get something to stem the flow of blood. The bullet had gone right through him, because he was bleeding out of his back too. He went down to his knees and I finally had enough of my undershirt ripped up that I could press pieces to each of his wounds. I was yelling at Frank's wife to call for an ambulance, but she just stood there. I think she might have been in shock from all the sudden violence. I was holding on to the compress I'd put on the wounds when I felt something hit me on the back of my head and I went flying face first into the grass. I turned around and saw Frank standing there trying to decide whether he wanted to come after me or after Billy. I managed to get most of the way up before he decided that I was the one he had to dispose of first. I caught part of his kick with my chest, but I had his leg in my hands and was able to twist it and send him down on the ground, with me falling on top of him. Since it had worked so well with Billy, I decided to just punch his face until he stopped moving. I got back up after I was sure that Frank would stay put and went back to tend to Billy.
I don't know how long we were all out there before a fire truck and a couple police cars pulled up in the street. The fire people looked over all four of us and then they sent off for two ambulances. I, being in the best shape of the four, was arrested, hand cuffed, and put in the back seat of one of the police cars. It only took about five minutes for the first ambulance to get there and they took Billy away by himself. By the time the second ambulance pulled up, Ryan was on his feet and telling the attendants to take care of Frank first. When the ambulance left with Frank, the police arrested Ryan too and brought us both to the station house in separate vehicles. I used my phone call to get a hold of my father and told him where I was. He told me to just sit tight and not to make any statements until he got there with Mr. Bennett and a lawyer for Billy and I. They put me in a holding cell and had Ryan somewhere else. I figured that Billy and I were in a lot of trouble since the whole thing had taken place on Frank's front lawn. I didn't think Billy's wound was that serious, but I had no medical training and didn't know what the bullet might have hit before it exited. It took another three hours before I got called up and processed into the jail. I was photographed and fingerprinted and formally booked on attempted murder charges. As soon as I was booked in, I was bailed out. Mr. Bennett had found a judge to set my bail at $5,000.00. Billy had been taken to the hospital and had a policeman on the door of his hospital room. Mr. Bennett had brought a real young guy as my lawyer. He must have been pretty good though, or Mr. Bennett wouldn't have brought him. As soon as I got out of jail we all drove over to Frank's house and I picked up my car. My father had sent Janos to pick up Theresa and the kids and bring them over to the hospital.
Mr. Bennett told me to just go in and see Billy for a few minutes if I could, and to tell him the same thing my father told me about not saying anything about what had happened. They wouldn't let me in to see Billy, but they let Theresa in before they moved him out of emergency care. I told her to tell him not to say anything, but she just gave me a dirty look. I didn't know whether the look was because she thought I'd talked Billy into this thing or because she thought Billy didn't need to be told to not make any statements. It was probably as little of both. Once Theresa came out after talking with Billy's doctors, she told us that they said that Billy was probably going to be okay. I decided to drive home and face Ellen. I knew she wasn't going to be happy with the events of the past two days. I was right again.
As I had expected, Ellen was really hacked at me for getting into that whole mess. When I told her that Billy was in the hospital because he had been shot, she made me back up and start from the beginning. Ellen is a fidgety woman, the more upset she gets, the more she just has to start moving around, touching things and keeping her hands and legs busy. By the time I was done telling her everything up to the point of me being out on bail, she had twisted up the cloth on the kitchen table until it looked like it was more off the table than on.
"I know you aren't stupid Jackie, but sometimes it sure seems like you are. I can understand Billy wanting to go over to New London and confront those men, but I can't understand how you let him talk you into going with him. How do you think Theresa felt when Janos came over to tell her that Billy was in the hospital after being shot?"
"At least it wasn't her that shot him this time." I have this very annoying habit of trying to make jokes when I'm under stress. Ellen says it is one of my least lovable characteristics. I could see from her expression that I wasn't helping my cause any with that last comment. "Ellen, Billy's going to be okay. If the charges were really serious, do you think I'd be out on such a small bail amount? If you think about it the right way, you'll see that Billy and I didn't really have another choice. We couldn't allow the Caughlin's to try to move us out of our business by hurting our drivers or sabotaging the equipment. Billy and I both thought that if we confronted them right away that they'd back down and forget about their plans to take us over. We had no idea the Ryan was crazy enough to come out of the house with a pistol."
"Well it's a big mess now and I don't want you doing anything else to make it bigger. I mean it Jackie, you end it right now before somebody winds up getting killed. The business isn't worth your life or Billy's either. You both can do something else."
"Ellen, I hope you don't really mean that? There's just no way I'd allow those two assholes to tell me what I can or can't do in my business. It may not mean that much to you, but that business is what makes our lives possible. That goes for Billy and Theresa and the kids too. We didn't build this thing up, Billy and I, just to run away and hide the first time somebody came around wanting to take away what we've built. I'm not going to end this thing until those assholes decide that they've bitten off way more than they can chew."
"You always find some way to convince yourself that what you want to do is the right thing to do. It doesn't matter to you that your decisions affect a lot of other people who would prefer to approach things differently. You just like to go around showing people how tough you are. I'm surprised you and Billy don't get into trouble even more often the way the two of you think. Go get cleaned up and change out of those clothes. I've got to call Theresa and see if she and the kids need anything."
Billy got released from the hospital the next morning. Except for some bandages, you'd never had known he'd been shot and badly injured the day before. Ellen and I were sitting in his kitchen out at the farm having coffee and some dough nuts that Ellen had made me stop for. Theresa was in the other room getting the kids settled back down. The school had let out for some reason and all four of them were home. Little Billy was good about helping with his brother and sisters, but four of them was a lot to be having in one living room all at the same time.
"Jackie, you think those Caughlin's learned their lesson yet?" Billy was like a kid, and I knew he was just dying for the two of us to relive the day before with traded accounts of what each of us had seen at the same time. I would have gone along with him if Ellen hadn't been sitting right there between us. "I can't believe that fucking Ryan actually had the balls to pull the trigger. I think he was more surprised by it than we were." I don't know about Billy, but I was more surprised that he'd gone running after a man with a gun than I was that the man with a gun had fired it. I know I wouldn't have run after Ryan if I had been Billy.
"Billy, Ellen's right. We need to figure out some intelligent way to end all this. We can't be going around calling people out for an ass kicking like when we were kids. I think we should have a regular meeting with the Caughlin's someplace where there isn't going to be any trouble, and sit down and talk." Now I mostly said that to let Ellen know I could be mature and responsible. I also pretty much knew what Billy's response was going to be and I always liked getting him riled up because he was so much fun to listen to when he was venting. I smiled over at Ellen when I said that.
Billy tried not to react, knowing what I was up to. I could see him exerting some self control because the tension was in his face and in his rapidly changing coloring. He was fighting his own nature though and it didn't take long for that nature to win out. "Are you nuts? They don't want to work things out with us, they want to put us out of business. They came to you Jackie because they knew that if they came to me I'd have kicked their asses as soon as they suggested their shit. Too bad they didn't have as much respect for you. Now that it's all out in the open, we should just go back out there and finish it with them. I hope you don't think, for even one minute, that I'm about to let that fucking Ryan Caughlin just get away with shooting me? I'll do it myself Jackie if you've lost the stomach for it."
"Billy, I'm out on bail right now for attempted murder for Christ's sake, and I didn't do anything but pull you up off of Frank and Ryan. I'm pretty sure that your turn is coming next. Ryan was charged with something too I think, like discharging a firearm within the city limits. If it was as simple as us meeting them somewhere and kicking their asses, I'd be all for it. It isn't like that though and I think Ryan demonstrated that they won't just sit back and allow us to beat on them."
"So that's it then? You just going to hand everything over to them and walk away?" The look Billy sent me was one of total disbelief and I could see his respect for me was in danger of faltering as well.
"No Billy, that what Ellen would do, but she's not making the decisions, you and I are. These are our businesses we're talking about here, our livelihoods, the way we feed ourselves and take care of our families. We built them up ourselves, and we need to protect them, even if it winds up costing us a lot. If Theresa and Ellen think there's a better way, they should run over to the Caughlin's and talk with Frank's wife. If the women can settle it, then I say let them." I was trying to get a rise out of Ellen, tweaking her for stepping into an area that she didn't really understand. In my wildest imaginings I wouldn't have thought that she and Theresa would pick up on that idea and run with it. If I had thought about what it was I was saying before I spoke, I wouldn't have opened my mouth.
"Theresa and I couldn't make a bigger mess of it than you two have. I think you've finally had a good idea, Jackie, and if Theresa is willing, I'd like to give it a try." She got up and walked out to the living room and, as she left, Billy gave me a very unhappy look. Both of us knew that I'd messed up by letting the women get their noses under our business tent. In a matter of three or four minutes, Theresa and Ellen were back in the kitchen making plans for setting up this meeting and arranging for Theresa's sister April to come over to watch the kids when they went to their big peace meeting. They spoke about where they should hold it and what they would wear. If it hadn't been so scary, it would have been laughable. Before we got up and left, Theresa and Ellen had agreed on what outfit each of them would wear and decided that they would let Sheila Caughlin select the meeting place. Ellen elected herself to be the one to phone Sheila within the next day or two to try to arrange the meeting.
Billy and I went outside before Ellen and I left, supposedly so Billy could show me a fungus he'd noticed attached to some of his birch trees in the back of the property, but really so that we could come up with a little plan of our own for how we were going to finish this thing with the Caughlin brothers. Billy thought we should get a couple guns of our own, just in case, but I was able to convince him that that would not be a good idea from a legal point of view. Billy told me that Mr. Bennett and my father were both working on a plan to keep Billy from being arrested for the last little set to on the Caughlin's front yard. Mr. Bennett wanted Billy to go down and file assault charges against both the brothers so that Billy would have more leverage to keep himself from being charged. Billy didn't want to do it because he thought it made him look like he was afraid of Ryan and Frank and wanted or needed protection from them. I told Billy that he should do what Mr. Bennett wanted unless he thought he'd want to try to get through all this alone. Mr. Bennett seemed always to know exactly what was needed to keep his friends from getting jammed up with unfavorable interpretations of their actions. When I reminded Billy that he still owed Mr. Bennett for his assistance after Theresa shot him, he frowned and then agreed to go down and do what Mr. Bennett had told him to.
"So what have you and Billy been cooking up now Jackie? Don't lie to me either, because I know you too well."
"Billy didn't want to go down and file charges against Frank and Ryan. He thinks it makes him look afraid of them. I told him he had to do what Mr. Bennett advised if he wanted to keep getting his help in things like this. He finally agreed to do it, but only after I reminded him of the last time he needed Mr. Bennett's help, when Theresa decided to use him for target practice."
"And what else?"
"And we both decided we didn't want to carry guns to protect ourselves from things."
"Jackie, I know you think all of this is fun and games, but it isn't. I don't want to think about something bad happening to you or Billy, but it could if this thing keeps going. I want you to promise to give Theresa and I a chance to get this all settled. Will you do that? If we can't help it, then I'll listen to you if you have some other ideas.
"Ellen, I promise to let you try this thing, but I'm not going to promise anything if the Caughlins decide to go ahead in the meantime and do something on their own."
"Okay, that's fair. Just don't have you and Billy go out and make things worse before we try our way."